Routine Atrocity: Death at sea, in Syria, Libya and beyond…

capsized boatThe song Nature Boy by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds begins with the protagonist watching the news and seeing: ‘…ordinary slaughter, I saw some routine atrocity’.

The point is reasonably clear – that faced with continual exposure to the horrendous, even the worst things we could possibly imagine become somehow run-of-the mill, or commonplace.

I only mention it because in a conversation with my partner yesterday I almost – though not quite – answered the question ‘what will you write about?’ with the response ‘I don’t know… nothing much has really happened this week.’

In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.

This week, the UNHCR reports (we have of course touched on the factors which make all such reports estimates rather than incontrovertible truth, but we should note that the numbers are both likely to be very close to the truth, and if they are inaccurate, they are as likely to be under- as over-estimates) that 54,518 people have entered Greece via the Mediterranean in January alone.

This figure is almost ten times higher than the total number who crossed the Mediterranean in January 2015 (5,550) and was announced with two days of January remaining.

Of those, 90 per cent came from ten countries, including Syria (48 per cent), Afghanistan (21 per cent), Iraq (nine per cent), Eritrea, Pakistan, Sudan and Somalia (each 1-4 per cent).

In the same 29 days, 348 people have drowned attempting to make the crossing, including 39 men, women and children who died on Saturday morning (30th January) attempting to reach Lesvos, Greece. Turkish coastguards rescued 75 people from drowning in the same incident.

In Turkey, meanwhile, there are more than 2.2m Syrian people living increasingly desperate lives, as the EU has given Turkey €3bn not to help refugees find safety in a legal fashion, but simply to ‘prevent’ people reaching Europe.

In Izmir, up to 300,000 people are spending the winter in basements and hovels without windows, walls and in some cases without roofs, waiting for the chance to board boats they know may be the last thing on which they ever set foot (nor is this limited to Izmir – the 39 people who drowned on Saturday morning boarded their boat slightly south of Ayvacik, roughly 200km north of the city).

In Lebanon, one in five people is a Syrian refugee, (one in four is a refugee), and in Jordan Al Za’atri refugee camp is regularly the nation’s third largest ‘city’ by population (Za’atri’s own population peaks and troughs, as refugees attempt to return home to Syria when they hear fighting has moved from their region, only to be forced back as the tide of conflict turns once again towards their homes).

In Somalia and Sudan, men women and children are still, after more than a decade (in Somalia’s case, more than 25 years) being forced from their homes by warfare, while in Eritrea, though the state’s civil war has ended, people are still forced to flee torture, terror and oppression. Nor are those three alone.

In Syria and Libya, meanwhile – the two states at the centre of the international refugee crisis – all-out war disrupts, wrecks and in far too many cases ends lives. In Benghazi, war between the Operation Dignity militia and Ansar al-Sharia has been a daily fact of life since May 2014. In Sirte, IS in Libya carries out public executions, having snatched the city in February last year.

In Madaya, Syria, a town which the Syrian government has laid siege to for six months, 16 people this week starved to death despite aid convoys being allowed to enter for the first time since the siege began. Thirty people had previously died of starvation, and MSF reports another 33 people remain in serious danger.

And once again, Russia and Turkey are in states of increased agitation after Turkish claims on Saturday afternoon that a Russian jet had entered its airspace.*

*Russia described the claim as ‘baseless propaganda, which raises two reasonably interesting questions. First, what would Turkey gain from such ‘propaganda’? Second, what happened to the claims Russia made about Turkey supporting IS? It’s almost as if – despite Russia’s insistence that it opposes IS, and that its claims about Turkey were true – once Russia had no reason to smear Turkey, the claims simply stopped being important to it.

None of this is to say that things cannot improve.

I have previously noted the fact that the EU can, by simply centralising its response to the international refugee crisis, at a stroke stop the ongoing chaos across the bloc, massively decrease the number of Mediterranean deaths, and introduce regulation and order which will not only enable the EU’s member states to behave with decency and morality, but will also be effective and reduce potential negative impact upon – and response from – the people already in the EU.

Here – and in several other places – I have highlighted that the Syrian conflict can be ended by assuring those who support Assad that they will not face massacre if he is deposed, and that a government in which all have a stake and which serves all equally will simultaneously pave the way for the eradication of IS in the state.

I detail many of the things which must happen to save Libya from disintegration and destruction – not least the urgent removal of warlord Khalifa Haftar from the state’s affairs, the defanging of his ‘Dignity’ militia and the equally illegal (and opposing) Fajr, and elections to form a legitimate government with public backing and the power to govern, in my book The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis, as well as in a number of places on this site.

The fact is that we are in the middle of a vast crisis, and that even though things can improve, they will not do so unless we all – politicians and others – work to make them.

Though we may sometimes feel we are becoming numb to the horrors of the world in which we live, it is not the case that nothing much is really happening, but that nothing much is really changing.

We must all work to change that, fast.


One thing which has changed very little in the last seven months is the attitude of UK politicians – and perhaps particularly Prime Minister David Cameron – to the gravest crisis of the modern era.

In late July last year, Mr Cameron described the thousands and thousands of desperate people, fleeing war, terror, bombs, bullets, missiles, oppression and starvation, as ‘a swarm of migrants’.

Had this been a one-off, politeness might have dictated we should have assumed it was in some way a mistake – a slip of the tongue, rather than a deliberate or even accidental reflection of he and his government’s actual thoughts on the matter.

This was a difficult position to hold, given that he and his government have responded to the crisis so far by putting up walls to prevent people entering the UK, setting dogs and armed police on desperate people living in refugee camps, refusing EU attempts to organise and plan to reduce the chaos the crisis is causing and consistently and flatly refusing to play any part in the emergency proposal set out by UNHCR in January 2014 to take 20,000 Syrian refugees – a plan which would not only have helped save Syrian lives, but also reduced the massive pressure on Lebanon and Jordan, both of which are far poorer than the UK.

And on Wednesday 27th, it became impossible to maintain the pretence, as the UK’s Prime Minister decided to stand up in Parliament and claim that the leader of the opposition had: ‘Met with a bunch of migrants in Calais and said they could all come to Britain.’

There have been a number of ‘explanations’ offered – by supporters of Mr Cameron and those who have been horrified by his comments – as to why he might have said this.

Some have said this was an attempt to distract people from the fact that the government had inexplicably declared as a ‘coup’ a deal under which multi-billion pound corporation Google would pay only a fraction of the tax its profits suggested it should.

Fortunately, I am immune from this, as this blog is about North Africa, the Middle East and the international refugee crisis, so I have not been ‘distracted’. Though we may note that perhaps if corporations actually paid the tax they should, rather than the far smaller amount they should do, the UK government would not be so ‘concerned’ that we ‘can’t afford’ to help people in desperate need.

In any case, if the Prime Minister genuinely decided to dehumanise hundreds of thousands of desperate people, taking a very real risk of causing hatred and aggression towards men, women and children who have done literally nothing wrong, in order to distract the public from his government’s ineptitude, then he should be embarrassed at behaviour unbefitting an adult, let alone a head of state.

Similarly, another – sadly quite believable – idea – that he did so simply to make his opponent in the House of Commons look bad. Once again, if this were his motive, the Prime Minister must look extremely carefully at whether he is the right man to lead his country. The people of the UK need and deserve better than that from a leader.

There is another possibility, however. That this is really what the Prime Minister believes. His previous comments have certainly pointed to the fact that he may genuinely be incapable of thinking about these people as people, and that he genuinely regards them as something less than that.

If so, he is wrong. I have met people at the Jungle, Calais, and at refugee camps across the world. I have spoken to and worked with people affected by conflict, in Libya, Syria and far beyond. Perhaps Mr Cameron has not been so fortunate, in which case I can assure him that they are all human beings, with lives, concerns, pressures and joys like everyone else’s.

I would note that it should be Mr Cameron’s job to know this, and I hope he finds time to learn, so he can do his job properly, rather than simply getting by on slightly less than the bare minimum of work, as he seems to be intent on doing.

A spokesman claimed that: ‘He (the PM) very strongly disagrees with the approach that Labour are now taking… to open the doors to migrants… will only make the situation much worse. It will produce a huge draw to Calais.’

The fact is that there is simply no evidence whatsoever that allowing the 6,000 people at the Jungle to enter the UK would do anything of the sort. The UK features about sixth on the list of states refugees would choose to live in, but more to the point, if Mr Cameron’s government simply allowed the EU to regulate the crisis centrally, and set up a quota system, the problem would be solved at a stroke – there simply wouldn’t be anyone at the Jungle; one of the world’s grimmest refugee camps, because they would already have been allocated a place to live.

This central fact significantly undermines the spokesperson’s closing sentence: ‘The Prime Minister thinks the key here is to get the policies right.’ Because the Prime Minister has consistently got the policies wrong.

The fact that there are still six thousand people living in filth and squalor ‘between’ the world’s fifth and sixth richest states when he has refused any of the alternatives (decent accommodation at Calais while people’s applications are processed; allowing the refugees to enter, as this would make almost no difference whatsoever to the UK’s population or expenditure; allowing the EU to set up a quota system) is entirely down to Mt Cameron’s failure – or refusal – to consider the situation and address it with seriousness.

It is often said that politicians come into their own in the face of crisis – or at least that the test reveals the kind of person they are. Mr Cameron’s failures risk revealing him as a man not deserving of the UK’s most important role.

There is a final point to make on this issue. Because many people have, quite reasonably, criticised Mr Cameron for deliberately dehumanising refugees with his statement.

But fewer have pointed out that he is simply wrong. That is, by describing the people at Calais and elsewhere in Europe as ‘migrants’ Mr Cameron is failing to process even the most basic truth of the situation.

As noted above, the people entering the EU at present are coming from states where there is war, torture, terror and oppression. My own view is that the risk of death through starvation should be enough to qualify a person as a refugee, but even in the absence of that, every single statistic available proves that the people who have arrived here in the last 12 months are refugees.

By referring to these desperate men, women and children as ‘migrants’, Mr Cameron is making a basic category error. Once again, it is reason to question his capacity to do his job.


Also this week, the Danish Parliament voted to seize the valuables of refugees who attempt to enter the state.

I wrote at length about this last week, so I shall only note that Denmark is the world’s 32nd richest state. It has a population of 5.1m people, and in June this year, it had allowed 17,000 refugees to enter (the figure has by now perhaps increased to 20,000) – roughly 0.003 per cent of its population.

It is a falsehood to claim Denmark ‘cannot afford’ to welcome refugees. It is also one of the least justifiable demands ever made, that people who have been chased from their homes by bullets, bombs and the real threat of death must pay for the privilege of escaping that.

As a footnote, on Holocaust Memorial Day (Wednesday 27th January) one day after the Danish decision, and the same day Mr Cameron described thousands of desperate men, women and children at a camp in Calais as ‘a bunch of migrants’, Eva Schloss, the step-sister of Anne Frank,who managed to escape Nazi Germany in 1938, noted: ‘We haven’t really learnt anything—I’m depressed by the current situation. The experience of the Syrian refugees is similar to what we went through.’

It is a grim epitaph for the consistent failure of politicians not just to solve, but even to engage fully with the gravest crisis of our time.


A note on Libya, before we finish.

Late on Friday (29th Jan), reports emerged from the United States that President Barack Obama had requested his Defense Department staff to draw up an all-options plan for fighting IS, including the consideration of military action in Libya.

It should be noted that this is not the same as a ‘plan to attack’ Libya, rather an order to set out and consider all available options.

But a Defense Department spokesperson commented: ‘”Action in Libya is needed before Libya becomes a sanctuary for ISIL, before they become extremely hard to dislodge.

‘We don’t want a situation like in Iraq or Syria.’

It is to be hoped that the following things are considered before anyone decides to bomb Libya again.

First, Libya is already a place where IS exists. It has been in charge of Sirte, my former hometown, where it is terrorising and murdering people, since February 2015, and had been occupying Derna for several months before that.

Second, not only is the situation in Libya already ‘like it is in Iraq or Syria’, the situations in those countries are in part what they are both because of – and despite – US activity in each.

The latter point is vital. Bombing IS in Iraq and Syria, as the US has now been doing for almost 17 months, has made almost no difference whatsoever to IS’ strength and capacity to act.

As noted elsewhere on this site, the way to defeat IS is to deliver peace first, and then chase it from its hiding places. The alternatives have been tried, and failed.

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