In a perverse reflection of the outrageous ‘send in the gunboats to deal with the cockroaches [refugees]’ and the ‘burn their boats’ rants by an LBC radio and Sun ‘journalist’, the British Government has signalled it will support a European Union naval blockade of the Libyan coast (and destruction of people smuggling boats) in order to stem the tide of refugees and migrants escaping the various wars in Africa and the Middle East. Yet it was the British Government that was pivotal in the destabilisation of Libya and the wider region, which, consequently, saw the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the civil wars that these refugees are fleeing from. This latest move to prevent more drownings is simply an enhancement of ‘Fortress Europe’ and is in stark contrast to the ‘sea-shepherd’ style rescue vessels that are increasingly taking direct action to assist the refugees – see more below…
The blatant inconsistency of British foreign policy on Libya can best be illustrated by, first, the infamous kiss between Blair and Gaddafi that sealed the so-called deal over WMD, followed by, just seven years later, the sight of David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy parading in Libya with the victors who toppled Gaddafi. Blair’s rapprochement strategy was complemented by MI6, which assisted in the rendition and torture of senior Libyan opposition politicians, who, if not captured by the Coalition forces, would have been able to create at least a veneer of stability once the Gaddafi regime had been overthrown. As it was, the fractured opposition that took their place failed to prevent the inevitable civil war and, eventually, one of the biggest refugee crises in recent European history.
Last year alone more than 200,000 people crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe to escape the various conflicts and war zones, with more than 3500 lives lost at sea. This year, already 30,000 have crossed the Mediterranean to seek safety. The death toll at sea since the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings is now considered to be in the thousands, with 1500 drowned in the last four months and almost a thousand of those in the last few days. The true figures are believed to be far higher and the Italian prime minister has described the tragedy as ‘Europe’s shame’ and that another ‘Srebrenica’ looms.
The Mediterranean sea is now literally a mass graveyard and as tourists sip their pina coladas on the beaches, disfigured and half eaten bodies wash ashore to remind them that life isn’t all sweetness and light.
Equally perversely, UKIP’s Nigel Farage, while correctly blaming UK intervention in Libya as one of the causes behind the refugee crisis, has made it clear that Britain should only take in Christian refugees from Syria. Last year, with the full support of the UK and France – both keen to please xenophobic tendencies in their countries – the Mare Nostrum rescue programme was significantly scaled down and replaced by Operation Triton, which has clearly failed in both stopping the migrants risking their lives at sea and saving those lives when their boats sink. But whilst the Italians via their outstanding coastguard service and the Greeks via public interventions are doing their best to deal with this humanitarian crisis on a day-to-day basis, Britain’s support remains minimal, offering just five immigration officers to liaise on the problem. Similarly, to date, Germany, to its credit, has taken in more than 40,000 Syrian refugees, though Britain has taken in less than 200 – even though the UK is one of the main military players in the conflict against ISIS in the Iraq/Syria war zone.
Now it appears that Britain’s only solution to the conflict in Libya and the humanitarian crisis taking place there is not to offer more aid, but simply to ensure, via military means, that people smugglers’ boats are destroyed and that the victims of the conflict remain in situ. Logistically, that may work in the short term for the Libyan coastline, but most definitely not for the Mediterranean as a whole.
Yesterday’s emergency meeting of EU ministers agreed that while the search and rescue operation would be expanded, the emphasis in future will be on capturing the people smugglers and – significantly – destroying the boats that enable the refugees to escape the conflict. Thus the casualties will continue, but not at sea.
For the tourists on the beaches of southern Europe, a simple case of out of sight, out of mind.
But, to end on a positive note… Alongside, but separate from the official search and rescue mission, at least two privately own refugees ‘sea shepherd’ style ships will soon be patrolling the Mediterranean to provide assistance where possible. One is working closely with Medicins San Frontieres (which is calling for an expansion of search and rescue); another – ‘Sea Watch’ – was purchased via crowd funding and will be based in Malta. A third vessel – ‘Phoenix 1’ has already saved more than 3000 people since last August.
So, no longer ‘Europe’s shame’, but ‘European Government’s shame.