Saturday, 25 April 2015

Drowning migrants: when irritation is made to matter more than disaster

It shouldn’t be difficult to draw a line between disaster and mere irritation. And yet, oddly, there are many who seem incapable of telling them apart.

This week I listened to a young East African explaining to the BBC how he and his wife had decided to make for Europe, illegally, paying an exorbitant sum to people traffickers to take them on board a hopelessly overloaded boat from Libya. The boat capsized during the crossing; he briefly had a grip on his wife but as he found himself floundering in the water, they lost touch and she drowned.

“I didn’t know anything about how to save her,” he explained from her grave in Italy. 

Now, that’s a disaster.

Behind it lies a long history of ill-advised and badly conducted interference by Western powers, who should know better, in Africa or the Middle East. The West, having for decades tolerated or even, on occasions, positively encouraged a dictator in Libya, Muammar Gaddafi, decided to do away with him in 2011. Military support to internal rebel groups led to his overthrow and eventual assassination.

The West then went home, leaving it to the Libyans to sort themselves out, which they’ve singularly failed to do. We have replaced a toxic and dangerous dictatorship by toxic and dangerous chaos. Sound familiar? It should. It’s Iraq all over again. And the same kind of chaos afflicts many other countries, with or without Western help. Somalia. Mali. Syria. Yemen.

Refugees from all those countries have been travelling to Libya, where they join the many thousands of locals also trying to get out. Why Libya? Because it’s about as close as you can get to the southern border of Europe, in Italy.

Desperate migrants attempting to cross to Europe
In grossly inadequate boats
Our possibly well-meaning, but generally ill-judged interventions have massively added to the crisis in those countries. There’s no doubt that, in that way, our nations have contributed to turning huge numbers of people into victims of people smugglers. And therefore to a great many of them drowning when their grossly inadequate boats sink.

In 2014, nearly 3500 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean. This year, in under four months, estimates are that there have been nearly 1500 deaths.

So disaster has been compounding disaster.

The Aftermath
Now for the irritation. At the end of last week, Ed Miliband, campaigning to oust David Cameron as British Prime Minister on 7 May, said that a lack of “post-conflict planning” for Libya, by the Western governments, including Britain’s, involved in the overthrow of Gadaffi, had contributed to making the crisis worse.

That annoyed Cameron and his friends in the media. “Shameful” they called Miliband’s comments. “Ill-judged.” And they preferred to focus their attention on that, rather than on the drownings. The suggestion seemed to be that the hurt to Cameron’s feelings was more important than the loss of life among the migrants.

You see? An annoyance that mattered more than a disaster.

The reality, of course, is that even the annoyance was minimal. If Cameron made such a song and dance about it, his only reason was that he saw votes in it. “Look,” he was saying, “Miliband’s being rude to me. How can you vote for a man who says such unworthy things?”

And the other bit of reality is that, if Miliband had genuinely wanted to put he boot in, he could have been far harsher still.

Back in October, the Italian government gave up on its “Mare Nostrum” search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean. Over the twelve months for which it ran, it saved 150,000 lives. But the Italians decided that they couldn’t afford to keep running it on their own.

The British government, headed by David Cameron for the Conservatives and his Liberal Democrat deputy Nick Clegg, was outspoken among those in the EU who blocked any move to help Italy fund search and rescue missions.

Now that certainly led to the present upsurge in deaths. And what was Cameron’s justification for indirectly contributing to the drowning of so many people? That to keep providing rescue services would only encourage more to come.

Cameron is being outflanked by anti-immigration UKIP, which has many sympathisers on the right of his own party. So to placate them he refused help to desperate, exploited migrants left to drown. For electoral reasons.

Interesting that the word “shameful” was used of Miliband’s words. When these have been Cameron’s actions.

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