On Friday, the EU announced an agreement which had apparently taken ‘until the early hours’ to achieve: it would care for 60,000 people who had fled war, terror, poverty and unnecessary death.
It’s hard to imagine how this could possibly have taken so long, for several reasons.
First, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has asked that every state in the developed world should take 20,000 Syrian refugees (the UK has taken 187. On 17 June its Prime Minister David Cameron pledged that it would take ‘hundreds more’ in the next three years. It is not recorded whether the announcement was met with a slow handclap).
This is not just to save Syrian people from war and mayhem, but also to assist states like Lebanon – where one in five people is a Syrian refugee – which don’t have the infrastructure to cope with the people who have arrived seeking safety.
By comparison, the EU – a 28-member body containing all but four of the world’s richest states – has agreed to offer assistance to 60,000 people. Nine times fewer than the UNHCR is requesting.
Second, states which objected strongly to the plan – Hungary and Bulgaria – have been excused from taking part.
Third, the agreement contains no commitment from any country to take a quota of people – that is, each signatory has committed that the EU (minus Bulgaria and Hungary) will provide shelter to 60,000 people, but not one single state has actually committed to allowing a single one of those 60,000 to settle within its borders.
Fourth, the agreement is not a commitment to allow 60,000 new refugees to enter the EU. It is to allow 40,000 people already within its borders to remain – and be repatriated outside of Italy and Greece, where they are at present – and 20,000 other people to enter the EU.
In short, it’s a tiny gesture, which commits no individual states to anything at all, and will allow 20,000 Syrian refugees to enter the EU. There are currently four million Syrian people who have fled the state to escape the grim, chaotic conflict there.
Though the EU’s plan will certainly be welcomed by 20,000 people, it ignores 50 times as many. Something is better than nothing, but the EU has argued into the early hours to develop a plan which blurs the boundaries between the two states.
Equally, in the statements issued by European leaders (European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi at least admitted the plan was ‘modest’) a central fact appears to have been forgotten: the negotiations began with the drowning of more than 2,000 people in April and May this year.
The majority of those people had travelled from North Africa, rather than Syria (though none of either region’s people should be left to risk their lives) but as French PM Francois Hollande confirmed: ‘(the 20,000 are) essentially from Syria and Iraq, who at this moment are in camps and who will be reinstalled in Europe.’
As a brief aside, this raises the question of what UK and Spanish representatives meant when they argued that the EU should work harder to ‘return people to their country of origin’: is the policy of the two countries to force people back to Syria where they will be killed?
Certainly, David Cameron seems to indicate it is, after claiming in the same speech in which he said the UK – the world’s seventh richest state – would allow the entry of around one ten-thousandth of the number of people who are currently surviving on handouts and living in tents in a desert, that the way to stop people from attempting to cross the Mediterranean was to send them immediately back to where they came from.
He claimed, erroneously, that: ‘The biggest factor that dictates whether people attempt to cross the Mediterranean is their treatment once they reach Europe.’
(It is a remarkable and unfortunate circumstance that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom appears to think that people are leaving their homes, families and all they know, then risking their lives to get to the EU because they like the EU, rather than because they face a very high chance of an early death if they remain in their country of origin)
He then added that the UK would: ‘Emulate Spain, which returned people who arrived on the Canary Islands.’
Glossing over that astonishing notion, the EU’s plan – tiny-but-well-meaning as it may be – appears to have completely ignored the larger of the two setting-off points for migrants crossing the Mediterranean: the North African coast, specifically Libya.
This does not mean Libya has been forgotten. Far from it. It’s just that the attention paid to the war-torn, ravaged state, and the people who are attempting to travel through – or from – it, is inexplicably militaristic.
On Monday, (22 June) the EU announced – seemingly with pride – that it had begun naval operations against Libyan people smugglers.
Under the plan, 15 ships, aircraft and drones will monitor boats carrying people from Libya to Italy, as well as interviewing people who arrive in Italy about their experiences.
To a certain extent, the proposals are not entirely unreasonable: the people who smuggle people across the Mediterranean are breaking the law, and often mistreat the people they carry.
But there are several problems. First, the UN and both Libya’s ‘governments’ have refused to endorse the action, (yet another in the list of negatives on which the HoR and GNC agree – this time the UN completes, rather than undermines, the unity).
Indeed, on 24 June, the HoR issued a statement that its airforce would target any ships in Libyan waters without permission, a statement which would no doubt carry rather more weight were the Libyan airforce not so weak that it failed in March 2014 to prevent one unarmed oil tanker leaving port from Sidra.
As a result, the EU operation will not be able to take place in Libyan water, while intelligence specialists have expressed serious concerns about the reliability of intelligence gathered so far from the state.
Second, there is absolutely nothing to shake the feeling that the EU is placing the cart before the horse. People travelling by boat from Libya to the EU simply are not doing so because they have been kidnapped by people smugglers – the only circumstance under which the sensible option would be to prioritise the arrest of people smugglers ahead of all other options.
People are risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean because those lives have either become so endangered, or worth so little, where they lived, that the risk of death is no longer a deterrent.
They are not being kidnapped, coerced or even convinced to get on boats. They are getting on because where they live they face war, terror, starvation, and death.
Because of this, to attempt to prevent people reaching Europe by targeting those who carry them across the Mediterranean can have one of only two outcomes: either it succeeds in stopping people reaching the EU, in which case the EU is deliberately condemning people to death, or it fails to prevent people from coming, in which case it is revealed to be not only morally, but also pragmatically wrong.
And as in most Libya-related matters to date, the UK has spent the week proving that whatever the EU can do, it can do more nastily.
On Sunday 21 June, it withdrew HMS Bulwark from its role patrolling Mediterranean waters, and replaced it with the smaller (one fifth of Bulwark’s size) HMS Enterprise, which it later stated would not be part of the EU Operation Trident search and rescue mission, which Bulwark had been.
Bulwark had saved 3,000 lives in the Mediterranean since the start of May, literally pulling people from the sea. Enterprise will have no part in doing so.
The UK government has replaced the saving of 3,000 lives with the saving of no lives, sending Enterprise instead to look at Libyan fishing boats.
But the UK government has not entirely withdrawn from Operation Triton, and its aim to pull drowning people from the sea. Despite removing a boat – the only boat it had sent – which saved 3,000 lives, it is preparing to send one helicopter to take part in the project.
Instead of taking action to save lives, the UK government has confirmed it intends instead to set up a 90-person team to ‘work with’ countries from which people are fleeing under fear of torture and death to ‘prevent’ people from attempting to escape those countries and enter the EU.
A spokesperson for 10 Downing Street said – once again without appearing to feel any sense of shame or discomfort: ‘We have got to do more to break the link between getting on a boat in the Med and getting settlement in Europe. Otherwise these vast numbers will just keep on coming.’
It is hard not to repeat oneself, but it is vital to state this as many times as is possible: first, the vast majority of people who attempt the Mediterranean crossing do so because they are desperate to escape war, torture, false imprisonment and terror. Not because they have somehow seen the future and understood they would be accepted by the EU. The government has this the wrong way round.
Second, there is a tendency among politicians (and others) in the UK to claim that many people attempting the crossing are ‘economic migrants’ rather than ‘genuine asylum seekers’.
Now, even if we were to ignore the huge logical shortfall here (who on Earth risks their own life to earn a few pounds more than they do at present?) the fact is that when we speak of economic migrants in this context, we are not talking about people whom want a better job: we are talking about people whose economic situation means they may actually die of starvation.
Whatever the point at which ‘economic factors’ ceases to be a decent reason to allow people into your country, people who might die because of lack of food are surely nowhere near it.
And third, let us not put too fine a point on this, if this 90 person team succeeds, it will have worked to prevent oppressed human beings, who flee the threat of mayhem, war, torture, false imprisonment and terror, from escaping from all of those things.
Not only that, it will have worked with and assisted the exact same oppressive regimes to seal the fate of the people who are desperate to escape. It will not sign, but will draw up, the death sentences of several thousand people.
It is a proposal which should chill us to the bone – and one which should remind us that for all our pretence of civilisation, without guidance our government will work with the worst of humanity, to the detriment of human beings.
The EU’s proposals may be laughable, but it is to the shame of all of us within the UK that its government’s alternative is to work with corrupt, dictatorial regimes, to eliminate people simply so they do not arrive at our door.
Also on Friday 26 June, at Sousse, a beachside holiday resort in Tunisia, a man opened fire on holidaymakers. Thirty-seven people were killed, including the gunman. Another 36 were wounded.
The attack coincided with two others – one in Kuwait where a mosque was bombed, killing 25 people and wounding 200, and in France, where a man was decapitated.
By late Friday afternoon, IS had claimed responsibility for the Kuwait suicide bombing – the slaughter of worshiping Muslims seemingly not at all at odds with their claims of fighting for Islam.
No-one had yet claimed responsibility for the Tunisian or French outrages, though IS had called for Ramadan to be a ‘month of calamity for the apostates’. It is possible that, even if the murderers in France and Tunisia had no prior affiliation to IS, they were acting on that ‘call to arms’.
There are many things which could be said about the attack in Tunisia. One could look to the massive steps the state has taken towards becoming a leading political innovator in its region, and hope that the state manages, once again, to overcome an unwarranted attack. It is a state I have lived in, and I dearly hope it does.
And of course, anyone with even the briefest second to do so, should think about those who were killed while on holiday, or at prayer, or at work, and about the families they leave behind.
But we should also remember that whether or not we believe in a supreme supernatural being, anyone who believes Islam or its god, Allah, wishes people to murder one another is, simply, delusional.
As a non-believer (in any and all religions), I do not like to quote religious literature. But the Qu’ran, the book IS claims to be acting on the orders of, couldn’t really be any more clear:
‘take not life, which God hath made sacred… Do not let your hatred of a people incite you to aggression.’