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23 April 2015

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.

By Daniel Trilling

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.

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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?