Many people, including myself, have asked how many migrant deaths in the Mediterranean Europe is prepared to tolerate before it takes serious action to try and prevent them. After the events of last week I think we have the answer. It is now becoming horribly and disturbingly clear that there may in fact be no upper limit at all.
At the beginning of the week it was reported that four hundred migrants had drowned had drowned trying to reach Italy from Libya. Then on Wednesday 15 African Muslim migrants were arrested in Palermo and charged with homicide, after survivors from the boat they arrived on reported that they had drowned more than a dozen Christians in a ‘dispute about religion.’
Forty-one migrants are reported to have drowned in another incident. And yesterday 70 migrants were rescued from a dinghy and taken to Lampedusa. One woman was already dead, and was brought ashore in a black bag. Many other passengers were suffering from from severe burns, which they had incurred when a gas cannister exploded in the place where they were being held before their voyage. Their traffickers had not allowed them to receive treatment in hospital.
The UN has characterized these deaths as a ‘human rights tragedy not a natural tragedy, and one that needs to be addressed through a comprehensive human rights-based approach, that is the shared responsibility of all countries.’ In a statement on last week’s deaths, EU Migration spokeswoman Natasha Bertraud described the situation as ‘grave’ and admitted that ‘ it will only get worse in the weeks and months to come.’
Though she insisted that the European Commission was fasttracking ‘ a new comprehensive approach on migration management’ she neverthless declared ‘ We do not have a silver bullet or any kind of panacea that is going to make the situation go away like that and no amount of fingerpointing is going to change that.’
There may not be a simple way to ‘make the situation go away’, but there is a great deal of fingerpointing that can be done when it comes to Europe’s mindboggling indifference to the carnage that is unfolding on its Mediterranean borders. Last year the total number of migrant arrivals in Italy was 170,000, more than 300 % higher than it was the previous year, and the death toll was also higher than in any previous year.
The European Commission, and every European government, knew this when Italy closed down its Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operation last December. All indications suggested that the numbers of arrivals would continue to rise, and the smuggling ‘migration season’ which was once limited to the summer was now being extended to the whole year, regardless of the rougher seas and the added risks of death.
All of this was common knowledge, yet no government answered the Italian government’s request for assistance in search-and-rescue. The British government refused to participate in any such operations because it said that they only encouraged more people to come. The unspoken corrollary of that shameful observation is that people dying in the Mediterranean would also dissuade people from coming.
Other European governments clearly shared the same expectations, even if they did not express them so openly. Because the EU replaced Mare Nostrum with the feeble Operation Triton, essentially a border enforcement operation rather than search-and-rescue with 7 ships, 4 planes and a helicopter at its disposal. All this costs $3 million per month, compared with Mare Nostrum’s $10 million.
Exactly as was predicted, the death toll rose spectacularly. Already it is fifty times higher than it was at the same time last year. Yet the numbers have continued to rise too. 10,000 migrants have set out for Italy this month alone, so the absence of search-and-rescue does not appear to be a determining factor for those undertaking these journeys.
Even after last week, not a single one of the 28 EU member-states have pledged any new assistance. So fingers can and should be pointed, not only at the European Commission, but at European governments who pay lip service to human rights and the principle of protection yet remain indifferent to the suffering and death that their border policies have engendered.
It isn’t only migrants who are feeling the impact of this passivity and indifference. We are witnessing the death of a certain idea of Europe that was once crucial to the formation of the European Union and supposedly still is; the notion of a common political space that would be a model of human decency for the rest of the world.
That dream is dying, crumbling away before our gaping mouths and wringing hands at the EU’s dystopian borders. And so too is the notion of pan-European solidarity, as border countries like Italy and Greece are left virtually abandoned to deal with a crisis that all the EU’s member states should be taking responsibility for.
We have had the chance to be generous and respond like human beings to human beings who needed our help. Instead we have allowed our response to the awful tragedy that is unfolding before our eyes to be dominated by fear, resentment and political cowardice.
Last week the loathsome sociopath Katie Hopkins described migrants as ‘cockroaches’ and ‘feral humans’ and said that gunboats should be used against them. Hopkins probably didn’t know that this proposal that has already been made a few years back by Umberto Bossi of the Northern League. She probably doesn’t care that describing black migrants as insects is the kind of language that we have come to expect from fascists and Nazis.
She did say in her Sun column: ‘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.’
Touching sentiments, to be sure, which few governments would ever express, but their passivity suggests that they don’t much care either. The scaling back of search-and-rescue was based on the unspoken hope that the worse things get for migrants, the more likely it is that they will stop coming – a hope that always implicitly prioritises exclusion over saving lives.
That policy hasn’t worked even on its own dismal terms. It needs to stop. And while it may be true that there are no magic wands that can make the situation ‘go away’, our goverments could stop handwringing and pontificating about the evils of people traffickers and send the ships, planes and helicopters and do that very simple, elementary thing that they have so far refused to do, and make the same kind of effort to save lives that they would undoubtedly be making if white people were dying in the same numbers.