Last week, I contrasted the false crisis at Calais – in which 5,000 people who have been living in one-person tents for six months are presented as a threat to the UK – with a manifestation of the real international refugee crisis, in which thousands of people have drowned in the Mediterranean.
Over the last seven days, sadly, the game has remained the same – only the details have changed.
A different UK politician has posed the same argument, while dozens of people (one report suggests as many as 106) have been slaughtered in one Libyan city in the last three days (I write in the evening of Friday 14 August).
With David Cameron away on holiday, and Theresa May also maintaining a low profile, it was this time UK Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond who spoke of the ‘threat’ posed by people fleeing war, torture, oppression, terror and death in their homelands.
In Singapore on Sunday (9 August), he told reporters that if ‘millions of Africans’ were to ‘enter the EU’ they might ‘threaten our standard of living’.
Later in the week I was interviewed by Pete Price on Liverpool’s City Talk (the interview was broadcast on Thursday and is available to listen to here) where I touched on the shaky logic of this claim.
Because – as mentioned in previous pieces on this website – the UN reports that between 1 January and 30 June this year, 137,000 people have crossed the Mediterranean to enter the EU. Roughly 40 per cent of them came from Syria and Afghanistan, leaving a maximum of 80,000 arriving from Africa.
The rate of migration is unusually high this year, so we might expect it to reduce. But even if it were to remain as it is, this would mean that 160,000 African people will have entered the EU between 1 January and 31 December this year – a rate at which it would take 12.5 years for two million (and when Mr Hammond says ‘millions’, it does not sound like ‘two million’ but a far, far larger number) African people to have arrived in the EU.
We do not even have to question the logic of an argument which uses as its basis the idea that ‘new people’ are automatically likely to ‘drive down living standards’ (there is no reason the opposite could not be the case), and we can note that in a geo-political bloc of 508,000,000 people, 160,000 people is equal to just over 0.000314 per cent of the population.
By looking calmly at the bare facts before us – the literal truth of the situation – we can understand that whatever else this is, it is not a ‘crisis’, or an ‘emergency’.
But it is frustrating.
Because Phillip Hammond is the UK Foreign Secretary, and what he is saying holds the potential to turn our attention away from a very real crisis – the fact that millions of people are living in conditions of war, terror, torture, oppression, and shortages of food and medicine – that we could work to address (at the same time significantly reducing the number of people arriving in the EU, if that is what we want), and replacing it with a non-issue: a false crisis, which we should not be worrying about, and cannot do anything about, because it does not exist.
(I will note here that there is a crisis at Calais right now; the fact that 5,000 people have such abominable living standards that they are at serious risk of disease and death. But the false crisis does not touch on this reality of the Calais situation)
And once again, as this time last week, if we wish to see the real crisis in action, we can turn to Libya (it is true, of course, that Libya is by no means the only state at the centre of this crisis).
In the last three days in the Libyan city of Sirte, dozens of people (most observers estimate 35-40) have been killed by IS forces.
In February this year, IS announced it had taken control of Sirte, a city in the centre of Libya’s Mediterranean coast. It made this claim first with a statement issued from the city’s broadcast tower, and then by releasing a video of the decapitation of 21 Egyptians on Sirte beach.
The event is discussed in my book The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis (out now and available at Amazon, where I note that at that stage, IS’ actual control over Sirte was far from assured.
In fact, it took the terror group three further months to complete its takeover of the city, defeating forces from Libya Dawn (the illegal militia which claims to support the illegitimate, Tripoli-based GNC ‘government’) and chasing them from Sirte airport.
And it has not been plain sailing for IS in Libya since then.
Sirte’s residents have in the main so far refused to swear allegiance to the group; it has been expelled from its other major stronghold in Libya – the city of Derna (though reports suggest it is preparing an attempt to retake the north-east-Libyan city) – and the rare moments of unity shown by Libya’s other illegal militias (Dawn; the ‘Dignity’ force, led by Khalifa Haftar who claims to fight in support of Libya’s other illegitimate government, the Tobruk-based HoR, but was fighting before it even existed; and equally illegal militias affiliated with Al Qaeda, the largest of which is Ansar Al-Sharia) have come about because of their shared abhorrence of it.
On this occasion, residents of the Mantika Thalaatha (Area Three) district of Sirte rose up against IS after the body of a Muslim cleric, Khaled bin Rajeb, was found.
bin Rajeb was well-known all over Sirte, and particularly popular in Mantika Thalaatha, where he was connected to many families and community groups. It is believed that he had been killed by IS members as punishment for refusing to swear allegiance to the group.
The improvised uprising failed. By Friday evening, IS had crushed the civilian ‘force’, and as part of their ‘response’, burned to the ground a makeshift hospital, where wounded Mantika Thalaatha residents had been being treated (one news source claimed 42 people were killed; Sirte residents appear to have told others that there were no deaths in the fire).
At this point, I feel it is very difficult to continue without making something clear.
In the period following the first Libyan Civil War, Sirte was not only the place where I lived.
It was my home.
The beheading by IS of 21 Egyptians on Sirte beach took place yards from where I had lived. I had met and worked with some of those killed.
Sirte is one of the focal points of The Toss of a Coin because it was one of the places I met, worked, and lived with people who had experienced incredible challenges, and overcome them heroically – without ever giving any sense that they themselves believed they had done anything out of the ordinary.
Some of the people you will meet in the book are residents of this small city – and many of the city’s residents are my friends.
One story within The Toss of a Coin – a story which I believe holds within it proof of the immense worth of the entire human race – is told by a man who lives in Mantika Thalaatha and risked all he had, night after night, to save others from death.
While I have been writing this piece, I have been urgently trying to contact people I knew and know who may be in Sirte, to make sure they are OK – or at least alive.
It has not been easy – not least because of intermittent power cuts in Sirte (these are by no means, in Libya, restricted to Sirte at present) – but at the time of writing this sentence, I have at least managed to ascertain that the majority are alive. I have, therefore, reason to hope that I may hear soon from others.
But I have no means of contacting the Mantika Thalaatha resident mentioned above. And even though I know that many of my friends are still alive, I also know that some of them believe they face the prospect of being hunted by IS. If caught, what then?
I was asked another question, in Thursday’s interview with Pete Price, about whether the people at Calais were IS ‘spies’, sent to enter the UK by fair means or foul, to then plan and enact attacks on the state.
Pete’s a good interviewer, and a decent man: he asks questions not for himself, but because he believes they are what his listeners may want to ask, in his place.
My answer, on the night, focussed on the practicalities of such an arrangement – whether it would make sense for IS to send people on a sea voyage in which they might be killed, to then trek across Europe only to spend six months perched on the southern coast of the Channel, when there must be far more efficient, easier ways of gaining a presence in the UK (in fact, IS has so far tended to recruit much more often from a particular state, then sent ‘operatives’ back to those states – this was the pattern in both the Suruc, Turkey, bombing and the massacre of 27 people at the Imam Ja’far As-Sidiq mosque, Kuwait, on 27 June).
I stand by that answer, on the grounds that the idea that IS would choose to enter the UK in this way seems wildly implausible.
But in Sirte, in Syria, in Sudan, in Somalia, in so many countries it should make us sick to the stomach to think of it, there is another answer.
In all of these places, millions of people know that if they are not killed in a conflict, then they may well be killed by the people who win a conflict.
Faced with those options, who amongst us would not wish to flee?
These people are not terrorists, they are people fleeing terror, to find safety elsewhere.
This is the gravest humanitarian crisis of our age, and we must not be deflected from it by fear – or by false crises thrown up in its place.
During an interview on Libya Channel, during which the host presented the politician with a series of complaints from Libyan people, Al-Thinni responded: ‘I officially resign, and will submit my resignation to the HoR on Sunday.’
In practice, this means that you – as reader of this blog – may well be in possession of more knowledge on this matter than I – that is, either Al-Thinni will have resigned on Sunday, or he will not.
The complaints presented to Al-Thinni were reasonable, and based on the real day-to-day experiences of Libyans who live under the rule of the HoR (there is absolutely no way in which life under the GNC is any easier or more enjoyable): shortages of fuel, no security, lack of medicines.
Presented with these complaints, Al-Thinni became angry. But despite many news reports taking what he said at face value, there is reason to believe his on-air response was less a statement of intent, and more a bid either to remind Libyans of his worth as a politician, or to create a point from which to improve his position.
Al-Thinni – analysed in some depth in The Toss of a Coin – is an unusually gifted and capable politician, often surrounded by people who lack his acumen.
Though he has taken a disappointingly rigid approach to the GNC (a politician of his capability could have achieved far more of what he and the HoR wanted through negotiation, but has instead applied his diplomatic skills to gaining international support – largely worthless in modern Libya), he remains an adept and adroit manipulator.
And he has some reason to feel angered by criticism: he and his family have suffered physical – on occasion armed – attack as a result of his public office, (again, detailed in The Toss of a Coin) and at present the HoR sits, powerless and reliant on Dignity – an illegal militia led by a man memorably described by one Libyan historian as ‘the worst military leader in Libya’s history’ – despite his best efforts to improve its position.
Simultaneously, he leads a ‘government’ which is failing to deliver even the basics of life for those it is supposed to serve (once again, nothing suggests life under the GNC is more enjoyable).
And he has ‘resigned’ before, only to be ‘forced’ to stay in his role by powers he ‘cannot’ disobey – in effect, more powerful than ever before; in position not only through public will but because ‘law’ decrees it.
Under such circumstances, and in the face of widespread public attack, his on-air resignation message may be read in a different light:
‘If my presence is an obstacle in this government, I give you my word that I will present my resignation to the House of Representatives. There is no need for anger or protest. Libyans shouldn’t go out on the street. We are done.’
Those words sound less like a goodbye, and more of a threat – without support, you will be left with people less capable than me.
Of course, only time will tell.