Nearly 2,000 people have been killed this year while attempting to make the perilous sea journey across the Mediterranean to the supposed safe haven of Europe – or rather, 2,000 and counting. In the wake of the grim news of a further 900 reported deaths over the weekend, there has been an information scramble as news organisations and politicians alike attempt to explain what has happened and, crucially, what we can do about it. Cue much grovelling and hand-wringing by European officials, and the oft-reiterated pledge that “something must be done” about the “problem” of unsafe migrant routes.
Now, it seems, that something might come in the guise of guns and warships. The EU announced this morning that it is planning on using “military means” to target the ships used by people traffickers, while David Cameron has pledged to send HMS Bulwark and military helicopters in a bid to “smash” the smuggler gangs.
Notwithstanding the sheer lunacy of this plan – a version of the trigger-happy Iraq war motto of “let’s bomb people and see if that makes things better” – the notion of using a military response to solve what is essentially a humanitarian crisis is misguided at best, criminal at worst.
It seems increasingly ironic that Britain and other European countries are now pledging to stop a situation that they themselves are wholly responsible for. In last 12 months before it was withdrawn due to lack of funding, Italy’s search and rescue mission, Mare Nostrum, rescued more than 150,000 refugees from the shark-infested waters of the Mediterranean. Since Mare Nostrum ended at the end of last year, there have been no attempts by European countries to save desperate migrants lost at sea. Indeed, Britain’s stance on the matter was to withdraw all search and rescue missions in a bid to limit further migration, since the chance of rescue was deemed a potential “pull factor” – a decision whose twisted logic one commentator encapsulated in the phrase “Drown a Refugee to Save a Refugee“.
The simple fact is that as a direct result of this policy, nearly 2,000 people have died in the first four months of this year alone. Deaths that could have been prevented entirely if Mare Nostrum and other rescue missions had continued to operate.
These people have left their homes and families, often travelling immense distances in the harshest of conditions in order to seek safety and refuge on our shores, and the policy of Europe towards them has been to sit back and watch them die. You never know, if they had actually made it here, they might have taken our jobs.
But the worst part of the attitude of the EU and other European powers to the migrant crisis is not just their criminal negligence of the thousands dying on their shores, but their wilful disregard for the past and the complicity of their governments in creating the political, economic and societal circumstances that are driving the tide of migration in the first place.
The history of European colonialism in the countries of Africa and the Middle East is one of pillaging, murder, corruption, and colonial arrogance. We treated the lands and the peoples of the countries we occupied with disdain bordering on hatred, and thought nothing of squeezing the last drops of commercial wealth out of them before discarding them to rot on the dust pile of history. Except, of course, when the battle-weary and desperate people of those countries turn up on our doorsteps asking for food and shelter – then they become demonised as “immigrants” and “benefit scroungers”. In the words of comedian Frankie Boyle: “We fear the arrival of immigrants that we have drawn here with the wealth we stole from them [in the first place].” Without the diamonds, gold and ores of the African continent, without the tea, spices, silk and other tradable goods from the Middle East and Indian subcontinent – not to mention the oil and natural gas from the Persian Gulf – the countries of Western Europe would be very poor indeed.
More recently, of course, Europe and the West has not contented itself with simply stealing from the people of these countries, but has been actively involved in meddling in the political and social fabric of nations across Africa and the Middle East. Without the NATO intervention in Libya, the arming of militant rebels in Syria, the catastrophic invasion of Iraq and the subsequent rise of Al-Qaeda and now ISIS to fill the power vacuum left by Western military and political games in the region, it is feasible that the situations in those countries would not have reached the crises that they currently endure.
In a very real sense, then, not only is Europe and the West directly to blame for the death of every single migrant they fail to save in the perilous waters of the Mediterranean, they are also to blame for the fact that the migrant even attempted the crossing in the first place. Without Western meddling, there may have been no civil war in Libya, poverty in sub-Saharan Africa, ISIS in Syria, or any other factor that drives people to the desperate measures of scraping together all their money and piling themselves and their close family members into a badly-built and leaky boat in order to cross the deep and deadly waters of the Mediterranean in search of a better life.
This is why, at the end of the day, targeting the smugglers themselves, or the networks in which they operate, will have very little effect. Without addressing the deep-running roots of migrancy across the Mediterranean – namely, the abject poverty, social and political turmoil and civil wars created by the West through their incessant manipulation and interference in the countries of Africa and the Middle East – the death toll will keep mounting. And we only have ourselves to blame.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.