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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Like many others, Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba was left in charge of a failing aircraft

Ony when enough hospitals shut down, and do so often, will those with true responsibility properly resource the NHS. 

The day Leicester trainee paediatrician Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba was struck off by the High Court for her involvement in the death of six-year-old Jack Adcock, Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt posted a tweet expressing his deep concern about possible unintended consequences of the ruling. He was referring specifically to the impact on patient safety.

At a stroke, efforts to build a culture of open learning – a cause Hunt champions – had been set back decades. You don’t get people to talk honestly about critical mistakes by threatening them with prison and professional ruin.

There may be other consequences that Hunt didn’t anticipate. Comparisons with another safety-critical industry – aviation – are instructive. On the day Jack died, from undiagnosed sepsis, Bawa-Garba was functioning as would a first officer on an aircraft. The plane’s captain was elsewhere, training other pilots on a simulator in a different city. The chief steward had failed to report for duty, so Bawa-Garba was expected to oversee cabin service as well as fly the plane single-handed.

The aircraft’s IT systems had gone down, meaning one of the stewardesses was permanently occupied looking out of the window to ensure they didn’t collide with anything. Another stewardess was off sick, and her replacement was unfamiliar with the type of plane and its safety systems. And Bawa-Garba herself had just returned from a year’s maternity leave. She’d done quite a lot of flying in the past, though, and the airline clearly believed she could slot straight back into action – they arranged no return-to-work programme, dropping her in at the deep end.

Not one of us would agree to be a passenger on that flight, yet that kind of scenario is commonplace in hospitals throughout the country. Critically ill patients have no awareness of how precarious their care is, and would have no choice about it if they knew. Since the Bawa-Garba ruling, doctors have been bombarding the General Medical Council (GMC) for advice as to what they should do when confronted with similarly parlous working conditions.

The GMC’s response has been to issue a flowchart detailing whom medics should tell about concerns. But it has failed to confirm that doing so would protect doctors should a disaster occur. Nor does it support worried doctors simply refusing to work under unsafe conditions. This is akin to telling the first officer they must inform the airline that things are bad, very bad, but that they still have to fly the plane regardless.

Jeremy Hunt has responded to the crisis by announcing an urgent review into gross negligence manslaughter, the offence of which Bawa-Garba was convicted. This is welcome, and long overdue, but it still serves to retain the focus on individuals and their performance, and keeps attention away from the failing systems that let down doctors and patients daily.

An action by the British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin is, arguably, more important than Hunt’s review. The organisation has written to Leicestershire police requesting that they investigate Bawa-Garba’s hospital trust for alleged corporate manslaughter. I sincerely hope a prosecution follows. I’m no fan of litigation, but change is only going to come when those who manage the NHS know that they are going to carry the can when things go wrong.

We need clear statements of what constitute minimum acceptable staffing levels, both in terms of numbers, and training and experience. When departments, or even whole hospitals, fall below these – or when unexpected problems such as IT failures occur – managers, faced with the real prospect of corporate lawsuits, will close the unit, rather than keep operating in unsafe conditions, as routinely occurs.

Only when enough hospitals shut down, and do so often, will those with true responsibility – Jeremy Hunt and the rest of the Conservative government – finally act to resource the health service properly. 

This would be an unintended consequence from the Dr Bawa-Garba case that would be welcome indeed. 

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist