The past week has seen unprecedented media coverage of the latest humanitarian crisis seeping out of Africa and the Middle East. Funerals for the men, women and children who drowned on 19th April were held yesterday in Malta, where some estimates have placed the number who drowned at over 1000.
In the meantime Europe’s leading politicians met to discuss how to address the increasing number of migrants attempting to reach the continent’s shores, with the International Organisation on Migration predicting that 2015 will be the worst year to date for migrant tragedies. The current sum of migrant deaths this year has already reached 1,700; more than half the total number of migrant deaths recorded in the whole of 2014.
The overuse of the terms ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ in the media has however disconnected many of us in Europe and has served to create a narrative of ‘us’ and ‘them’. In reality, these migrants are just like us; young men, women and even children with hopes and ambitions to create a better future for themselves. Their ambitions are so strong and needs so dire that they are willing to undertake what can only be described as a journey from hell. The only difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is that we in Europe were fortunate enough to either be born or find other legal recourse to residence here. For those less fortunate, their journey may begin in war torn Syria, where four years of civil war has created almost four million refugees according to the UN Refugee Agency. The other major source of migrants is Eritrea where indefinite military service, arbitrary detention and torture are causing a mass exodus of adults and children as young as seven to travel hundreds of miles of desert by foot, according to research conducted by the BBC’s Panorama and a Human Rights Watch Report. The destination? A country racked by war, instability and uncertainty; Libya, where the collapse of the state and resultant lack of policing or employment opportunities has led to the transformation of young graduates into ruthless people traffickers. Upon reaching Libya these desperate migrants pay a fee, often in the thousands, to be thrown on a fishing boat that is overflowing with passengers the vessel is not fit to transport. The outcome? Hundreds of men, women, children and babies perishing in the waters in the final stage of their nightmarish journey.
Reactions in the UK to these events and on how to deal with the greater number of people attempting this crossing does not say much for the compassion of our citizens. Self-styled celebrity Katie Hopkins landed herself in the news earlier this week after declaring on LBC radio show that a solution to stem the flow of migrants would be to make “a huge bonfire of all the boats they have”. While a poll to remove her as a Sun columnist- after she wrote similarly vitriolic comments in her column- has reached over 200 000 supporters, her view is not necessarily that of a minority; prominent UK politicians have been touting a non-too dissimilar solution.
London Mayor Boris Johnson suggested to radio host Nick Ferrari on the 22nd April that the UK needs to “choke off the problem at source” by sending a warship into North African territory. The home and foreign secretary reportedly remained adamant that an expansion of search and rescue operations would serve as a ‘pull’ factor for the migrants, and that focus should instead be placed on combating the traffickers. This despite the UN’s Human Rights Commissioner François Crépeau advising that the UK has the capacity to resettle 14 000 Syrian refugees a year for the next five years.
The Prime Minister does however appear to have been swayed that the UK has a responsibility to assist in this humanitarian crisis and not just with gunboats. The outcome of the emergency summit in Brussels yesterday has seen David Cameron shift from his party members’ views and agree to contribute to the search and rescue operations. The Royal Navy flagship HMS Bulwark has been ordered to Malta to join efforts to find survivors in the aftermath of last weekend’s worst Mediterranean migrant tragedy, and further assistance will be sent in the form of two smaller patrol vessels and three helicopters capable of spotting small craft at sea.
The success of the emergency summit has been limited by the haste in which plans have been made, with the UK still committing to only a minimal number of resettlement of refugees, despite the UN commissioner’s recommendations. The EU foreign and security policy coordinator was also charged with planning a military mission to deal with the migrant problem at source. This of course raises problems including military action on foreign sovereign land, though whether these plans will come to fruition in the face of having to secure a UN Security Council mandate remain to be seen.
In the end, the migrant saga has exposed a glaring hypocrisy amongst us Europeans, particularly here in the UK. For whilst our leaders revel in our international role in promoting democracy, human rights and good governance, we are unable to accept that doing so has in many instances created instability and sown the seeds for internal warfare; such as in Libya. It’s time we owned up to our mistakes and acknowledged our responsibility to the migrants who are only able to make the journey across the sea in their thousands due to the instability in Libya left in the wake of our involvement in assisting the fragmentation of their state.