Even by the awful standards of Europe’s maritime borders, the deaths of 29 migrants last Sunday are a terrible testament to the continent’s collective indifference. Late last Sunday, two Italian coastguard boats picked up 105 migrants from an inflatable boat in rough seas off the Libyan coast, in which waves were as high as 8 metres (26 feet) and temperatures were just a few degrees above zero.
To sail in a boat like that at any time of year is reckless even in good conditions, but to have set out in weather like that in winter, and on rough seas, was an act of pure reckless insanity that only very desperate men would undertake, and only the heartless parasites who feed off the global dispossessed would sanction.
But this isn’t just a familiar tale of the callousness of ‘people smugglers’. Because the most unbearable aspect of this story is the fact that the 29 migrants died after they had been rescued, during an 18 hour voyage back to Lampedusa in which they sat on deck soaking wet in freezing temperatures.
This wasn’t the coast guard’s fault. Until Italy stopped its Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operation last year, the Italian navy patrolled the Mediterranean with two frigates and two second line high seas units – all with medical facilities on board and enough space to take hundreds of migrants below deck.
The coastguard couldn’t do this, because now there are no such ships. Last year Italy stopped its Mare Nostrum and neither the EU not any other government responded to its calls to pick the slack. Instead the EU unrolled a much smaller program called Operation Triton last November, with a third of the budget, seven boats, two planes and a helicopter. Unlike Mare Nostrum, Triton came under the auspices of the EU’s border force Frontex, which made its clear that its priority was ‘border control and surveillance’ not rescue.
Mare Nostrum also had this objective, but it nevertheless saved more than 100,000 migrants in the year in which it was operational. These efforts coincided with a spike in undocumented migration across the Mediterranean as a result of the Syrian Civil War and the implosion of Libya.
So at precisely the time that more migrants were crossing the Mediterranean than ever, in a year in which the migrant death toll reached an all time record, Europe’s governments decided to wash their hands of any responsibility for preventing further deaths. No government was keener to do this than the UK. Last October Lady Anelay of St Johns, Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, rejected British participation in any future search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, when she made one of the most shameful statements ever to leave the mouth of a British politician:
These words deserve to be proclaimed on giant billboard signs in London, perhaps with a picture of 29 corpses to accompany them. According to the mayor of Lampedusa, Giusi Nicolini, ‘The small patrol boats were completely swallowed by the waves during the trip back. If Mare Nostrum were still going, the migrants would have been given shelter inside a large ship within an hour.’
No one knows their names or even their nationalities, but I doubt that Lady Anely of St Johns or any of the ministers in our government of millionaires are likely to lose much sleep over this. As Nicolini pointed out: ‘To organised crime it’s not important if people make it across the sea alive or dead. But now, without Mare Nostrum, it’s as if no one, and not just the criminals, cares if they live or die.’
No they don’t. So next time you hear any government talk about ‘tragic and unnecessary deaths’ in the Mediterranean, or expressing their sanctimonious condemnation of people smugglers, know that they are callous, vacuous and amoral hypocrites who have made a conscious and strategic decision to allow such deaths to take place in order to reduce Europe’s ‘pull factors.’
And remember those 29 men who sat for 18 hours dying in the wind and cold on the decks of the boats that tried but could not save them, because ultimately the governments from some of the richest countries on earth just didn’t think they were worth saving, and feel sadness, but also rage and disgust that such things can happen.