Yesterday morning I wrote that there has been no official recognition that the deaths of more than 900 migrants in the Mediterranean last week was in part, a consequence of the EU’s decision to replace Italy’s Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operation last November. Since then there has been some acknowledgement of this connection, from our own Prime Minister and his faithful deputy, who will hopefully be accompanying him to poltical oblivion.
But as is often the case when politicians appear to admit that ‘they got it wrong’ on something, these mea culpas leave out as much as they own up to. Take Nick Clegg’s op ed in the Guardian yesterday. Clegg begins with a great deal of handwringing rhetoric about the dehumanisation of migrants and the need to find solutions. He then comes up with this:
‘The EU’s decision to end routine search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean last year was taken with good intentions. No one expected the number of deaths to fall to zero, but there was a view that the presence of rescue ships encouraged people to risk the crossing. That judgment now looks to have been wrong.‘
This is a textbook example of a dishonest political apology, carefully-phrased and designed to make even the most horrendous decisions seem worthy and well-meaning, and mistaken only with the benefit of hindsight. First of all, the search-and-rescue operations that were closed down last year were not ‘routine’. Mare Nostrum was an exceptional response by the Italian navy to the mass drowning of 350 migrants near Lampedusa in October 2013, which saved more than 100,000 lives.
This operation was based on the belated recognition that the number of migrant crossings was rising and that these crossings were taking place outside the normal ‘migration season’. So when Clegg says ‘ No one expected the number of deaths to fall to zero’ as a result of the new policy that he supported, he is deliberately ignoring all the warnings and predictions that the number of deaths would increase if search-and-rescue was cut back
Pretty much every refugee organization predicted at the time that this would happen. Last October Michael Diedring, Secretary General of the European Council of Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) said this:
‘If Mare Nostrum ends without being replaced by a well-resourced operation whose priority is to save lives, more people will die in their attempt to reach our shores. A European effort is urgently needed, if the EU is really serious about putting an end to the deaths in the Mediterranean.’
And UNHCR said this:
‘Ending Mare Nostrum without a European search and rescue operation to replace it would place more people at risk. We need to maintain a strong capacity to rescue refugees and migrants who are trying to find safety in Europe. We also need to increase legal alternatives to these dangerous voyages, which puts people’s lives at risk in the hands of smugglers.’
And 20 of the largest refugee organizations in Italy also condemned the closing down of Mare Nostrum, last year, one of whom declared:
‘There are no doubts that without Mare Nostrum there would have been many more than the roughly 3,000 certified deaths of migrants at sea this year.’
Clegg and his government chose to ignore these warnings and argued against extending and maintaining search-and-rescue on the grounds that such operations would act as a ‘pull factor’ and encourage people to undertake unsafe journeys? So how would saving migrants from drowning encourage them to do this? Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond gave a kind of explanation this week:
‘There was a risk that the way the Mare Nostrum operation was being conducted could have encouraged people to take risks that it was really not safe to take. It’s anecdotal, of course, but when you talk to people who have been rescued at sea and they clearly have the impression that they can get on a vessel which is unseaworthy in the expectation that they will be immediately – within hours – picked up, that creates some really dangerous perverse incentives.’
Hammond did not say who he had ‘talked to’ in order to reach these conclusions. But the fact that the number of crossings was already rising before Italy began its search-and-rescue operation makes a nonsense of these claims, and this increase suggests that for most migrants, the risks of remaining in the wrecked Libyan state or in the countries they had fled from were even greater than the risk of drowning.
The EU’s refusal to maintain and extend search-and-rescue not only ignored these ‘push factors’, without saying so overtly it accepted the possibility that more people would die as a result. This is what deterrence means, and it has nothing to do with Clegg’s ‘good intentions’. It is a policy aimed to prevent people from reaching European territory and claiming asylum that the EU knew perfectly well most of them would be entitled to.
None of this was mentioned in Cameron’s mea culpa on ITV, in which he declared:
‘It was a decision that was made by the EU and Italy as well. They found at some stage it did look like more people were taking to boats. So they, the EU, decided to end that policy and have a coastguard policy. That hasn’t worked either.’
In fact Italy asked repeatedly for the EU to provide additional funding for its search-and-rescue operations or replace them with operations of its own, and Cameron’s attempt to share responsibility ignores the fact that his government was one of the states that most forcefully refused to step up because of the ‘pull factor’ argument.
Even now some of his ministers still oppose the expanded search-and-rescue, which Cameron is now proposing. And why is he doing this? According to the Guardian: ‘Cameron is understood to have shifted his position this week as the extensive media coverage convinced Downing Street and Tory election strategists that voters see the tragedy in the Mediterranean as a humanitarian crisis rather than an immigration issue.’
So saving lives is now an electoral gambit designed by ‘Tory election strategists?’
What a guy. What a government. What a contemptible bunch of hypocrites.