28 Oct 2014

Is UK letting migrants drown as they cross the Med?

In its carefully worded justification of why the British government will henceforth commit only one – yes, one – solitary “debriefer” to the European-wide effort to alleviate the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the second world war, the Home Office states the following: it wants to avoid the “pull factor” of an excessively helping hand for the thousands of migrants who have decided to risk their lives by boarding rickety crafts to Europe.

The prospect of an Italian or other European naval vessel poised to fish the migrants out of the waters is giving them, the officials argue, an incentive to embark on a dangerous and possibly deadly journey.

In other words, the new policy is doing them a favour. We need to let some drown to prevent others from drowning.

Read more: on the shores with the thousands dying to reach Europe

This is like saying let’s not make seat belts obligatory so that the rising number of deaths from car accidents become a disincentive for dangerous driving.

I have met scores of migrants over the years on the balmy coast of Sicily – most recently on a visit in September, the high season for migrant travel, in which about a thousand arrive every day.

They were a mostly huddled mass of refugees reflecting the changing map of unrest in the Middle East: middle class families from Syria armed with university degrees, ipads and cash.

There were Gazans who had escaped the summer of war with Israel, Gambian teenagers who had travelled to Libya in the promise of the job only to find the country in a state of civil war, Egyptians persecuted by the military, Eritreans fleeing their own government, Iraqi Shias fleeing IS Sunnis, Sunnis fleeing Iraqi Shias.

In each case that we spoke to, the “push factor” of desperation was far more important than the “pull factor” of a welcoming Italian or French frigate.

Read more: Lampedusa remembered one year on – but has anything changed?

In any case, many of them had been travelling well before Italy’s Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation had been put in place after last year’s tragedy off the tiny island of Lampedusa, in which almost 500 migrants drowned.

Now that Europe is set to pull up the drawbridge once again, there is nothing to suggest that the boats won’t be leaving or that the criminal gangs who make a mint out of this human traffic won’t be organising the trips and charging small fortunes.

The migration will go on. The numbers of people drowning will inevitably increase and it will take the next Lampedusa tragedy for politicians in the UK, France or Spain to decide what is more important: the politics of keeping migrants out or the politics of fishing refugees out of the water.

Like so much else, it’s all about how the numbers fit into the prevailing political mood of the day.

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