A shipwrecked migrant and child on arrival in Greece. Photo: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty
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Mare Nostrum and the high price of guarding “our sea”

It seems that the British government views migrant deaths as a useful deterrent, but criminal activity remains unaffected by the decision to let desperate migrants drown.

In 2012, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. “As a community of nations that has overcome war and fought totalitarianism,” said the European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso, in his acceptance lecture, “we will always stand by those who are in pursuit of peace and human dignity.”

Even as Barroso spoke those words, tens of thousands of refugees fleeing turmoil in the Middle East, or dictatorship and poverty in parts of sub-Saharan Africa, were trying to make their way to Europe – and finding their path blocked. Between 2007 and 2013, according to research by Amnesty International, the European Union spent €2bn on strengthening its external borders. Land crossings from Turkey into Greece and Bulgaria are now lined with guarded fences. Around the Spanish enclave of Melilla on the Moroccan coast is a three-metre-high separation wall, equipped with thermal sensors and pepper spray. In Ukraine, a network of specially built immigration prisons – decorated with the yellow stars of the EU – ensures unwanted migrants are kept out of sight.

European leaders have been quick to condemn the carnage in the Mediterranean, where many overcrowded, unfit boats carrying migrants, sent north by smugglers on the Libyan coast, have foundered this year while trying to reach Europe. Yet they will blame anything but their own policies. In recent years, EU states have made it more difficult for refugees to find safe and legal routes to asylum on their territory.

It is now virtually impossible to claim asylum at embassies overseas. The closure of land borders hasn’t stopped people trying to come; it has merely pushed them into taking more dangerous routes. The result is that while Europe hosts only a small proportion of the global number of refugees – according to UNHCR, developing countries are host to 86 per cent of the total – its southern frontier has become the world’s deadliest border.

None of this is new. Last year 170,000 refugees were saved by the Italian navy’s Mare Nostrum (“our sea”) search-and-rescue operation, which went into international waters to find boats in distress. When that wound down in November, it was obvious that replacing it with a much smaller EU operation, confined to European waters and with the priority of security, rather than saving lives, would have one predictable consequence: more deaths. Indeed, judging by the British government’s position – that rescues would merely create a “pull factor”, encouraging more migrants to try to make the crossing – it seemed as if the deaths were viewed as a useful deterrent.

If that reasoning seemed hollow last autumn, it appears criminal now. The end of Mare Nostrum made no impact whatsoever on smugglers or refugees – one smuggler in Libya recently told the Guardian he had never even heard of Mare Nostrum – and in the first four months of 2015 over 1,600 migrants drowned.

Government rhetoric has focused almost exclusively on the Libyan smugglers who run the boats. A blithe statement by the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, issued on Sunday 19 April, made no mention of Britain’s let-them-drown policy and talked mainly of the need to combat trafficking. The smugglers are indeed exploiting their passengers but they are a symptom, not the cause. They are frequently described as “traffickers”. The Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, went so far on Monday as to describe their business as “a new slave trade”. Yet trafficking, and slavery, refer to people being moved against their will. What politicians are reluctant to concede is that these migrants want to get on a boat because, however dangerous the journey might be, it is preferable to staying where they are. Nearly half of the migrants rescued by Mare Nostrum last year came from Syria, Eritrea and Somalia. Others, from West Africa or Bangladesh, may have left their homes due to poverty rather than war, but many of them were migrant workers in Libya who have been forced to flee as the country has collapsed and sunk into racist violence.

Because irregular migration is seen primarily as a security threat, and Europe’s border policies have been designed accordingly, the EU and many of its national governments have let what should be a clear set of priorities be turned upside down. Yes, there needs to be a way to undermine the smugglers’ business, preferably by creating safe routes for refugees rather than leaving them trapped in Libya. Yes, the conditions of war and instability elsewhere in the world – in which many European states have already played an intimate role – need to be tackled so that people are not forced to leave their home in the first place. Yet none of these problems will be solved in the next few weeks. And as migrants are drowning almost every day, the priority should be saving lives.

The European Commission’s ten-point plan, issued on 20 April after an emergency meeting of foreign and interior ministers in Luxembourg, makes vague promises to extend the rescue operations – but its focus remains on smuggling, security and returning migrants to their home countries. Why is Europe so afraid? A century ago people would have laughed at the notion that one day borders between European nations, which millions were killing each other over, could be rendered almost non-existent and that citizens could travel and work freely around the continent. Would it be so bad to extend the same privilege to refugees trying to reach our shores in search of safety?


Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?

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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.


Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  


India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.