Safe havens/aid, not gunships, key to Mediterranean refugee crisis

Refugee ‘camp’ in Libya

This week’s European Summit on the Mediterranean refugee crisis predictably got it all wrong. Their real message – as opposed to the contrite version to the media – is that nothing will be done to help the victims of various conflicts and wars; instead the emphasis will be on destroying the vessels of people smugglers. The truth is that this will merely restrict the refugees to civil-war torn Libya, when what they really need is UN organised safe havens and other forms of aid. 

In Britain the bar was significantly lowered when a so-called journalist, Katie Hopkins, referred to the refugees as ‘cockroaches’ – a term that Hitler used when referring to Jews. Hopkins went on to say “Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care. Make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit ‘Bob Geldoff’s Ethiopia circa 1984’, but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb. They are survivors.” Her wish partly came true when the very next day it was announced that 800 refugees had died at sea trying to get to Italy. So, the cockroaches metaphor was plainly untrue. Today Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, condemned Hopkins and said that the language she used was typical of “decades of sustained and unrestrained anti-foreigner abuse, misinformation and distortion” regarding migrants and refugees. Hopefully Hopkins is feeling suitable chastised and contrite, though clearly her remarks amounted to hate crime.

But the European leaders are not that far removed from this xenophobia. The armoury they agreed to deploy to tackle the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean is that of war not aid mentality. Yet commonsense dictates that their aim of destroying people smuggling boats is not realisable and will fail – largely because they will find it impossible to distinguish between the thousands of legitimate fishing vessels and the far smaller number of smugglers’ boats stretched not just along the Libyan coast but across the entire southern rim of the Mediterranean.

The only way this crisis can be properly dealt with is for the UN, with full EU and US support, to agree to organise safe-havens for the refugees. Logistically these safe havens will need to be located in that part of Libya which is undergoing the least conflict – eastern Libya. This is no easy matter as Libya also suffers from an influx of ISIS and pro-ISIS militants. But the causes of these mass migrations by refugees needs to be dealt with one way or another. Of course, this is no quick fix, but the longer the problem is put off, the more the refugee crisis will escalate and Libya becomes an ISIS client state. Incidentally, this crisis and a solution was first identified as far back as 2011, when Italy formerly requested NATO help – which was denied – in assisting the refugees as well as a UN ‘humanitarian corridor’.

Let’s not forget, too, that the coalition that attacked Libya in 2011 was made up of not just European countries but NATO allies in the Middle East and, of course, the USA. These non-European countries – the US and certain Arab nations – bear a responsibility too in aiding these refugees. Not a squeak about this has come from Obama.

Back to election-feverish UK… Yesterday, Ed Miliband got a little mixed up when he tried to apportion most of the blame for the refugee crisis on to the Conservative-LibDem coalition. He was not wrong, but failed to mention that he, as leader of the Opposition, also did nothing to deal satisfactorily with the post-conflict chaos that occurred in Libya once Gadaffi had been killed and his regime overthrown. Labour approved the bombing of Libya, which was largely led by the US with the UK and the French in close support. Labour was also directly responsible for destabilising Libya prior to the bombing. In short, they all – Labour, Tories, Lib Dems – have blood on their hands.

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