I have just published a short expose for Newsweek, in which a British government adviser called the European Union plan to deploy force against people traffickers along the Libyan coast “moronic and delusional.” A separate leaked document shows that senior military planners and EU chiefs have also been warned that the planned expedition carries “a significant risk of collateral damage” and would have “limited impact” on trafficking operations. The document foresees an increased risk of kidnappings of European citizens in Libya if the plan goes ahead.
There is little that is logical about deploying military force to disrupt such criminals. As a fifth source, who wasn’t featured in the Newsweek piece, described it to me: “This plan is ******.”
Currently, there is no stable government partner to work with in Libya. Most of the trafficking gangs are operating along the particularly lawless western coast, while the authority closest to being a viable ally is based in the east. According to one refugee expert working on the Mediterranean crisis, fishermen frequently lease their boats to traffickers, meaning that the accidental sinking of innocent vessels is also likely.
The current plan is to destroy the boats used by the traffickers, as well as their refuelling and docking facilities. However, large-scale refuelling facilities can be replaced quickly with a pick-up truck packed with jerry cans filled with petrol. Large-scale facilities for boarding can be replaced by smaller boats being loaded with refugees on a beach.
All too often, traffickers appear to be sinking the boats deliberately after they have used them, in open water and with the migrants still on board. The scuttling of the boats, off the coast of southern Europe, is an inevitable consequence of entirely necessary humanitarian rescue missions that the EU has been mounting, with decreasing enthusiasm, across the northern Mediterranean. Traffickers know that the final leg of the journey can be handled by EU-member navies, forced by their human rights obligations to pick up drowning refugees.
However, this is not reason enough to stop these rescue missions, and let migrants drown, as the British government argued last October. The European naval rescue service was a truly humanitarian mission that was, controversially, abandoned by Britain; the government claimed that it acted as a magnet for migrants coming to Europe. Thankfully, this decision has now been reversed.
Nevertheless, stupidity and cold-hearted policymaking in Westminster and Whitehall persists. Keith Vaz MP, head of the Home Affairs Select Committee, has suggested that rather than building a fence at Calais, a new physical border should be erected in southern Europe to keep migrants out. Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Montgomery, the head of Britain’s Border Force, said that it was necessary to completely “close” the European Union’s southern border, and that Eritreans should be told that, “Life inside the United Kingdom ain’t quite the cakewalk they’ve heard it to be.” You can only imagine the raised eyebrows from the desperate Eritreans on hearing this.
Of course, attempting to seal Europe off from the outside world completely is as strange a plan as deploying military force in Libya. Rationally-minded refugees along the North African coast are faced with a stark choice: death or extreme poverty. They will smuggle themselves through inevitably porous borders, however expensively equipped and policed they may be.
Defence Secretary Michael Fallon said originally that Britain might take a leading role in the new military deployment; he has since revised his position so that only intelligence-gathering drones will be deployed. Holland has also expressed doubts about the madcap EU plan. This reluctance is to be applauded. Meanwhile Germany, Sweden, Italy and France are pushing aggressively for what will, to all intents and purposes, be a military invasion of sovereign Libyan territory.
A document leaked to a different journalist, writing for EU Monitor, suggests that ground troops may also be deployed. This sounds like a recipe for unifying many of the various fighting factions in Libya against a common enemy. It has all the makings of a slow-motion Dunkirk, in the era of ISIS.
A thought experiment might helpfully illustrate the underlying reason why Europe isn’t prepared to do the honourable thing and just take in the refugees, rather than attempt to lock them out. Imagine if large numbers of white European Christians were living in Libya, Syria or Palestine. Imagine that they had been settled there for generations, perhaps since the colonial era. Imagine that they were largely poorly-paid and often exploited. If a war broke out, with mass civilian casualties and huge displacement of these white European Christians, would Europe take them in? The answer is yes.
The problem is pernicious structural racism, which prevents the EU governments and public from accepting non-white and non-Christian refugees into Europe, even if they are at risk of death.
So we must extend our generosity beyond the white Christian, if only to maintain our credentials as an ethical “Christian” continent, and the vast geography of the European Union must be used to our advantage. A centrally co-ordinated refugee programme, commanded from Brussels and with the collaboration of the UN and EU governments, should arrange for mass re-settlement of refugees in Europe. These refugees should be spread across the Continent evenly to avoid social unrest, community upset and economic burden.
The case for this re-settlement programme must be made by our political leaders and mainstream media outlets. It’s an opportunity to redress the hateful and xenophobic climate they have created collectively across Europe by pandering to the growing far-right. Those members of the public who remain unconvinced must be convinced and this stupid military operation must be stopped. The launch of the EU naval operation will be on the agenda of the Foreign Affairs Council in June. Please write to your MP and MEP if you can, urging them not to deploy military force in Libya.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.