On the 15th of April 1912 a cruise liner set sail from England to New York City. As is widely known, it collided en route with an iceberg and since has forever been immortalised; books have been written, movies made, and recovery expeditions launched. What is striking is that whilst 1,517 people died on the Titanic, more than 1,700 have died already this year in the Mediterranean. The deaths in the Titanic have been recalled countlessly, but they also remind us about the way the class system played itself out in life and death – status determining who lived, and who were left to die.
A century later, we see something of the same but on a much larger, geopolitical, scale. Here it is not class playing itself out directly, but North-South relations, race and ethnicity, the failures of Western foreign policy, and the problematic role national borders still play as fences and walls in an increasingly globalised world. But all that will be remembered from the current Mediterranean crisis, most likely, is the shocking number of deaths; the individuals and families in question appearing just as statistics.
Migration from North Africa to Europe is certainly not a new trend. For years the Mediterranean has been a thoroughfare for migrants trying to reach the shores of Europe. Whilst migrants have started their journeys from many African countries, they are typically bound by a common goal to escape persecution, to flee conflict, and to find greater economic and social opportunities. However, there are notable differences in migration patterns over the last few years.
First, there has been a generalised increase of would-be-migrants attempting to reach Europe. Second, there has been a dramatic rise in the departures that travel via the Central Mediterranean route. In fact, the EU Border Agency, Frontex, estimates that between 2013 and 2014 there was a 277% increase (see figure 1 below).
Figure 1: 2013-2014 Increase in Migration Flows (Frontex 2015 Annual Risk Report)
Across the board it is clear that migration is increasing, but nowhere more dramatically than from Libya. From figure 2 below, one can see the apparent correlation between migration flows through the Central Mediterranean and the regional instability in North Africa. 2011 was a period of optimism and migration from Libya declined; but it has been exponentially rising since. The majority of the migrants are not Libyan per se. Rather, the greatest number of migrants to date have originated from Syria, Eritrea and Somalia. The instability and chaos that grips Libya has created a vacuum for armed groups, smugglers, gangsters and human traffickers to operate at will; hence, Libya has become the dominant point of departure for many.
Figure 2: Migration Route Trends (Frontex in BBC)
When the UN authorised the intervention in Libya through Resolution 1973, the aspects of military engagement were focused on a no-fly-zone as well as the protection of civilians. What actually happened, of course, was something very different – the intervention quickly shifted to toppling the regime and Gaddhafi was swiftly ousted as a result.
What was then celebrated and hailed as a victory has now led to a Libya utterly fractured along sectarian lines, with no semblance of a functioning state and rampant human rights abuses. There is now little room for debate about the results of Western intervention in Libya. Of course, Libya is part of a larger pattern of failed Western intervention post-9/11. All of these wars were ill-conceived, poorly operationalised, short sighted and the product of Western hubris. In some part, these were also opportunistic wars, whereby Western politicians clamoured for war in order to shore up their own domestic positions. The record, however, is clear: the region is now more unstable and insecure than ever before, and Libya in particular is a broken country.
What we now see in the Mediterranean migration crisis is in many respects an extension of Western failure in two ways. First, the failed intervention created the instability that led to the Central Mediterranean route becoming so popular as a passage to Europe. Second, the European countries scaled back recovery efforts just at a time when they were needed the most. From late 2013 to November/December 2014 the Italian government ran a relatively effective operation called Mare Nostrum, during which time more than 100,000 migrants were rescued at sea.
However, the operation was costly at €9 million a month, and Italy cancelled it at the end of 2014 claiming that it was unsustainable without more EU financial backing. At the time, the debate within the EU amounted to little more than denials of responsibility and justifications for inaction. British Foreign Office Minister, Lady Anelay, at the time went so far as to say that ‘we do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean’; and that search and rescue operations created ‘an unintended “pull factor”’ encouraging more migration.
In place of Mare Nostrum the EU launched the much-scaled back operation Triton. Under Mare Nostrum the Italian Navy carried out search and rescue operations across 27,000 miles of the Mediterranean. Under Triton, the mandate only covered border surveillance within 30 miles of the Italian coast. The EU budget for Triton was only a third of what was spent on Mare Nostrum. To those who paid attention at the time, this was a huge, bright, waving red flag. Human rights groups and migration experts warned, with virtual consensus, that this would lead to a much larger migration crisis with many more deaths in the Mediterranean. Enter, today. This was not a crisis that came out of the blue; it was not an unexpected shock; it was anticipated and predicted – yet these warnings fell on deaf ears and now we see the consequences.
In the face of renewed crisis the EU has initiated discussions about how to address the Mediterranean migrant dilemma. On the 29th of April the EU Council released its summary of their four-day, 28 country talks. The agenda moving forward can be summarised three-fold: confront and prevent smugglers and human traffickers; triple the financial resources for EU border operations including the increase of ships and other necessary capacity; and enhance refugee protection. For the latter, this includes implementing a ‘Common European Asylum System to ensure the same standards in all Member States, an increase of emergency aid to front-line Member States, and the deployment of support teams to help process asylum claims’.
If the EU can reinstate effective search and rescue operations it will go a long way towards mitigating the escalating tragedy in the Mediterranean. However, it would be a mistake to consider the matter closed and problem solved, even if the EU is able to bring casualties to zero. Upon close inspection of the EU’s action plan, it is clear that it is driven primarily by exclusionary regional interest. What can be called “containment policies” are there to manage and control migration into Europe. These are policies that, whilst having a humanitarian veneer, radically exacerbate the burdens of migrants and displaced persons from and in countries like Libya, Syria, Eritrea, and Somalia, alike. Recent reports detail how some migrants waiting to set sail off the shores of Libya are kept in cages in a zoo, how they are tortured, and how women are often forced into prostitution. This is the fate of those waiting to leave and one that will likely be imposed on many more if/when the EU’s new containment policies begin to have an effect. Stefan Kessler, senior policy officer with the Jesuit Refugee Service, captures the underlying motive behind the EU’s new approach: ‘Keep protection-seekers far, far away from Europe so that their deaths don’t make the headlines in European media’.
The needs of those crossing the Mediterranean must be met; the search and rescue operations must be bolstered and given adequate support; lives must be protected. But we not should pretend that this solves the problem. Rather, these necessary measures are treating a symptom of a much bigger, much more difficult problem. Since the end of the Cold War forced migration has taken on a new shape as patterns of conflict have shifted. The combination of increased civil conflict, military interventions, and Western containment policies has led to the dramatic rise of forced migration on the whole, and internally displaced persons (IDPs) in particular – would-be refugees that simply have not yet crossed an international border. Refugees and IDPs are two sides of the same coin, some separated by border fences and some, in this case, by the Mediterranean. The containment policies of the EU – basically seeking to prevent people from migrating – will simply make things worse, not better. They will exacerbate the widespread human insecurity stemming from civil conflicts, failed interventions, regional collapse, and the widespread threats to human life chances in many parts of North Africa. These are the problems – not those desperately trying to run away from poverty and conflict in search of a brighter future.
To be certain, these issues are much more difficult to solve. But that does not mean they should be ignored; especially not by the self-proclaimed human rights champions of the EU. The issue of refugees and displaced people is one of the great tests of the international humanitarian ideals of the 21st century and the cosmopolitan aspirations of a Europe shaped by ambition to project its soft power and good governance across the world. However, when cosmopolitanism meets state interests under economic pressure, the former is often cast aside. Europe, racked by the Euro crisis, has become a sorrowful champion of humanitarian values. There is a paradox wherein most states are cosmopolitan when it comes to championing the ideals, but the very same states are sectarian when it comes to implementation.
There were huge steps that Europe took in the postwar period to move from a region of bitter conflict and strife to a pacific union in which (still) the idea of war among European countries is almost inconceivable – a regional polity shaped by human rights, common frameworks and the rule of law. But like in so much of European history, there are rights for citizens and exclusions for others. This divide is constantly policed and a bridge between these poles remains hard to build.
This article was first published by OpenDemocracy