How many people must die in the Mediterranean migrant graveyard before Europe decides that the human cost of its ‘migration management’ policies requires a change in these policies? Or to put in another way, at what point does the ‘collateral damage’ of the EU’s migration wars become so high that European governments can longer maintain the fiction that they are trying to stop it, and finally take some kind of concerted action to try and ensure the safety of the men, women, and children who undertake these lethal journeys towards the ‘space of freedom, justice and security?
Or should we instead, simply admit to ourselves that there is in fact no limit to the numbers of deaths that we cannot tolerate, and that a world in which the rich can travel anywhere but the poor must stay in their countries or risk horrific death is in fact the world that we want, and that we are prepared to live with indefinitely?
I ask these questions following the drowning of 500 migrants near Malta on September 11. With these deaths, the overall death toll from this year’s ‘migration season’ in the Mediterranean has now reached 2,500 – four times what it was in the whole of last year. In this latest tragedy, the boat appears to have been deliberately sunk by their smugglers, because they refused to transfer to a smaller boat than the one they were in.
Yet this despicable crime barely seems to have caused a ripple in the consciouness of a continent that now appears to regard the horrors that take place on its borders with equanimity and indifference, as though the men and women who have wash up on its beaches are the result of some inevitable and unavoidable natural disaster that took place a long way away and has nothing to do with us.
But these latest deaths have a great deal to do with us. According to the online EU Observer, between 250 to 300 of the passengers who died last week were Palestinians from Gaza, who have fled the Strip in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead. A Gaza-based NGO has reported 400 missing people who may have been on the capsized boat, all of whom paid between $2,000 and $4,000 from housing rebuilding grants to a ‘travel office’ in Gaza to smuggle them into Egypt through the Rafah tunnels, where they were taken across the Sinai desert to safe houses before undertaking their doomed voyage.
Even after this, one young Gazan told the EU Observer he was planning to do the same, on the grounds that ‘It’s better to try and to drown in the sea than to stay at home and be killed by Israeli bombs’. And Palestinians are trying. On Sunday another 15 Palestinians from Gaza drowned off the Egyptian coast, and 43 Palestinians were detained in a separate incident by the Egyptian authorities in ship carrying undocumented migrants nears Alexandria.
The International Organization for Migration has said that it has found no evidence of a surge in Palestinian refugees in the wake of Operation Cast Lead, but it isn’t only the immediate impact of the bombs themselves that is making Gazans leave. According to the UN Refugee Agency UNRWA, 95 percent of the water in Gaza is undrinkable salt water, and millions of litres of raw sewage flow into the sea every day, and there are now 800,00 people living on food aid, compared with 80,000 in 2000.
These are the consequences of the economic siege imposed by Israel with the complicity of the EU and the other members of the Quartet, and Gaza’s Arab neighbors, compounded by three major wars. The result is that a territory made up mostly of refugees because Europe once saw Israel as a way of solving its guilty conscience are becoming refugees once again and seeking safety in a Europe that doesn’t want them or any other refugees.
And now Gaza’s refugees are dying, along with so many others who have made the same journey. In doing so they have simultaneously become casualties of war and casualties of the border. And as we contemplate these horrors, I would like to ask another question: is this the kind of world that we want to live in the 21st century, in which men and women must routinely die while seeking safety while our governments petrify us with visions of ISIS and other invented threats to our safety emanating from ‘out there?’
Well take comfort folks. Because European Parliament President Martin Schulz has said that he ‘deplores’ last week’s deaths and called for action to prevent a ‘humanitarian catastrophe’.
Will these statements have an impact? We’ll see, but given the EU’s previous responses to such tragedies no one can be optimistic.
So by all means let us all ‘deplore’ these deaths and the men who sank their boat, but let’s remember that we all passengers in this fragile shipwrecked world, and that as we freak ourselves to death worrying about Ebola and ISIS, and Syrian jihadists coming back to kill us, there are people out there facing real dangers and real threats, and living in hells that our governments helped create, and they don’t just need us to ‘deplore’ their fate – they need us to reach out a hand and help them.