Mare Nostrum: Our Sea, or, The Mediterranean and what it means

mare nostrumIn the last week, 1,100 people have drowned in the Mediterranean. There are no circumstances under which that fact can be ‘massaged’ into acceptability. No situation in which one can rationalise away the mass drowning of human beings, perhaps by asking questions about who they were, and what they were doing on the boats that led them to their deaths.

The answers to those questions, for what it’s worth, are depressingly predictable, and normal.

They were men, women, children. People’s mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, friends. The only thing that made them any different from the author of this blog, or any of its readers, was the fact that they happened to be born into a nation at war, under the shadow of famine and disease, or ruled by corrupt, repressive regimes. Often, but not always, more than one of the three.

And that is also the reason they were on the boats. These are people who had fled chaos in their homelands, risked their lives to reach Libya, and when they got there realised that North Africa’s first failed state was not somewhere they could remain.*

*It is undeniably the case that many of those killed in the last week would, at some point, have tried to cross from Libya to the EU even if Libya were a functioning state. But it is equally certain that some would not, and that those who did were driven to attempt the crossing now, rather than at some later date, by the mayhem and murder which now characterises life in Libya.

I do not believe I ever met any of the 1,100 who met their deaths in the Mediterranean on Monday 13 April and 18-19 April, though at present, with the paucity of information about who exactly was on the two stricken boats, it is impossible to be certain.

But the people at Choucha Refugee Camp, Tunisia, who had made – or more often attempted and failed – the crossing to Europe, had followed remarkably similar passages to one another: escape from a conflict-torn, or chronically-poor, or diabolically-governed homeland, losing family and friends in the process; meeting fellow expats who offer advice and fix transport plans in a way reminiscent of the ‘underground railroad’; dangerous desert crossings not all of their fellow-travellers survive; entering Libya and spending time – months or years – struggling to raise money to cross to Europe by boat; being hidden in remote and often unsafe locations (24 Eritreans landed at Lampedusa on Friday 17th April with severe burns, believed to have been caused by a chemical fire at the factory where they had been hidden before making the crossing – five people, including a baby, were killed in the fire, caused when a gas canister at the factory exploded. None of the people caught in the fire were taken to hospital. Instead, they were placed on a boat to Europe); in many cases, being sunk off the coast of Libya or Lampedusa, and arrested.

When people in sub-Saharan Africa leave their countries, they head north: in what other direction could they travel? They enter Libya, because the vast state had, under Ghaddafi, opened its borders to refugees from across Africa and the Middle East, and because its extensive southern border, in the world’s largest desert, is virtually impossible to police.

They also enter Libya because the nation’s oil money had traditionally meant there would be opportunities to work and send money home, and because the state is a relatively small distance from Lampedusa – south west of Malta, and one of the closest EU (Italian) territories to the North African coast.

What they find there today is a nation destroyed not only by a war in which NATO helped remove Ghaddafi by smashing the state’s infrastructure into rubble, but also by the fallout from that war: two illegitimate governments at either end of the state, forced to observe, powerless, as four illegal militia groups battle one another to seize Libya’s wealth and control of its population.

At least three of these four groups have already committed massacres against civilian populations: the fourth has called in airstrikes from foreign states on the national capital, Tripoli.

Libya is no longer a place where one may find refuge, if it ever was. Small wonder people who have fled terror in one state are desperate to leave it.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that in October 2014, the EU decided to end a scheme which aimed to prevent death on the Mediterranean.

Mare Nostrum – Our Sea (named in recognition of the fact that the Classical civilisations on which Europe’s view of itself are built owed at least part of their success to the regions across the Mediterranean which would later become Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey) – was a search and rescue operation set up in the wake of the ‘Lampedusa tragedies’ in which 500 people died in October 2013.

Run primarily by the Italian government – though with some assistance from the EU – the programme was credited with rescuing 150,000 from drowning while they attempted to cross the Mediterranean.

But Italy argued it could not afford to continue the initiative, and EU states, including the UK, refused to contribute more money to its continuation.

UK Foreign Office Minister Lady Anelay, in a written response to a parliamentary question, explained that the UK government believed that Mare Nostrum (a programme under which people might be pulled from the sea should the boat on which they were travelling capsize) was a ‘pull factor’: that is, the British government believed that the possibility of being rescued from drowning was convincing people to migrate to the EU.

It’s hard to imagine how anyone with any actual interest in the region could have come to such a conclusion, which is similar to arguing that the provision of ambulances encourages serious illness.

The fact is that not one single person I have ever met who has attempted the crossing from Libya even knew Mare Nostrum existed: it simply wasn’t a consideration in their decision to cross, let alone a ‘pull factor’.

In Syria and Palestinian territories, from which people attempt to make similar crossings by similar means, these craft are known as ‘death boats’. That is, people know they might die, but make the crossing anyway, because they feel that whatever happens to them will be better than remaining where they are.

Though it may be difficult to believe, Mare Nostrum, with its tempting opportunities to be winched from a massive expanse of salt water, was never part of people’s decision to attempt to escape death.

All Mare Nostrum was, in fact, was an act of recognition that people attempting to enter the EU might die in the attempt. Preventing them from dying, under such circumstances, was a small act of civilisation.

In any case, six months on from the decision to end Mare Nostrum, 1,100 people have drowned in the Mediterranean – the tourist destination of millions of Europeans, north Africans and people from the Middle East – in the space of six days.

The Mediterranean is regarded in the west as the ‘cradle of civilisation. Its waters nurtured the Pharoes, Carthage, Ancient Greece, and the Roman Empire. Through what are now Tunisia, Libya and Algeria, it was the gateway between all of Europe and the vast African continent.

Today, it is at risk of becoming at best yet another region of international pressure, and at worst, a vast, international graveyard.

We should, of course, be working to ensure no-one is so desperate that they must leave their home and risk death to build a life somewhere unfamiliar. So far, we have not done that.

But the Italian/EU programme was well-named. The Mediterranean is Mare Nostrum. It is Our Sea. And if we refuse to help people prosper, in security, at home, the least we can do is help ensure they do not drown.

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