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African refugees drowning in apathy

The first thing to do, if you want to cut the number of refugees from Africa and the Middle East dying while trying to cross the Mediterranean, is to drop leaflets all along the Libyan coast teaching them about ship stability.

Don’t all rush to one side when you spot a ship that might save you, the pamphlets will say, because your boat will capsize and you will drown.

That’s what happened last month off the Libyan coast, where a boat filled with at least 700 refugees overturned when the people aboard spotted a Portuguese freighter and tried to attract its attention. At least 650 people died — half a Titanic’s worth of casualties — although the boat in question was only 20-metres long. Only 28 people were saved.

Exactly the same thing happened with another boat crammed with refugees the previous week, and another 400 people drowned. Counting another 300-plus people who drowned in another disaster in February, the death toll right now, before the peak summer season for refugee crossings, is around 1 500. That’s a full Titanic. It’s not getting quite as many headlines, though.

So the second thing to do is to lock the European Union’s foreign ministers into a room and refuse to let them have caviar and champagne until they agree to do more about the silent massacre in the Mediterranean. While EU leaders met recently at an emergency summit in Brussels, they did little beyond laying out options.

Something quite effective was being done until late last year, but the EU deliberately stopped it.Until late last year, the Italian navy (praise be upon it) was running an operation called Mare Nostrum that went all the way to the edge of Libya’s territorial waters to pluck refugees from the sea. The operation cost US$10,3million a month, but it rescued 100 000 people from leaking boats or the open sea. More than half of the 170 000 refugees who landed in Italy had cause to thank the Italian navy, and only one in a hundred died.

The number of refugees arriving in Italy each month is around the same this year, maybe a little higher, but 10 times as many people are dying on the way. That is because the European Union’s governments, rather than sharing the cost of the Mare Nostrum project, asked Italy to shut it down and substituted their own Triton operation.

Except that Triton is in no way an adequate substitute. It only gets a third of the funding Mare Nostrum had, and it only is supposed to operate in Italy’s coastal waters, not farther out where most of the refugee boats capsize or founder. Even this year, with the Italian navy theoretically excused from duty, it has saved twice as many people as the pathetic Triton operation. Which, by the way, was intended to be pathetic.

The argument the European governments made was that if you didn’t give the refugees the hope that they would be saved by the Italian navy, fewer of them would come.

Right. So, if you’re fleeing the civil war in Syria or the ghastly dictatorship in Eritrea, and you learn that the danger of dying on a Mediterranean crossing has gone up from 1% to 10%, you’re going to decide to stay in war-torn Libya instead?

Were the European governments lying to themselves, or just to everybody else? The latter, almost certainly. They were under pressure at home to stop the flow of migrants, they didn’t want to share the burden of saving them with the admirable Italians, but they couldn’t just say “Let them drown.” So they came up with that preposterous argument about deterring the migrants by making the crossing more dangerous, and shut down Mare Nostrum.

Thursday, EU member drafted a list of 13 proposals to deal with the public outcry over the drownings, but only the first point, “strengthening our presence at sea”, which involves “at least doubling” financing and boosting the naval presence, is likely to translate into action soon. And that plan won’t necessarily match what the Italians had been doing previously.

“In many countries in Europe at the moment,” said Laurens Jolles, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Italy, “the (political) dialogue and the rhetoric is quite extreme and very irresponsible. . . . It’s a fear of foreigners, . . . but it is being exploited for populist or political reasons, especially in election periods.”

At the summit in Brussels, for example, British Prime Minister David Cameron, fighting an election against anti-immigration populists, pledged his navy’s helicopter-carrying flagship and two other vessels to an operation he previously refused to support, but he stressed those picked up would not automatically be given refuge in Britain and would mostly be delivered to Italy.

Cameron faces attitudes at home like those of Katie Hopkins, a columnist for The Sun, a down-market right-wing British tabloid newspaper owned by the estimable Rupert Murdoch. In an article April 17, headlined Rescue boats? I’d use gunships to stop migrants, she wrote: “No, I don’t care. Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care.”

“Make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit ‘Bob Geldof’s Ethiopia circa 1984,’ but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb. They are survivors. . . . It’s time to get Australian. Bring on the gunships, force migrants back to their shores and burn the boats.”

Saying that sort of thing is how she earns her living, but it also expresses the true sentiments of a politically significant minority not only in Britain, but in most countries throughout the European Union. When the UNHCR appealed to the EU to resettle 130 000 Syrian refugees, Germany said it would take 30 000, Sweden (with a tenth of Germany’s population) took 2 700 and the other 26 EU states only took 5 438 between them.

Dyer is a London-based independent journalist.

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