EU leaders held an emergency meeting in Brussels yesterday to decide how to respond to the huge increase in deaths in the Mediterranean Sea of desperate people fleeing Libya for Europe. Around 1,600 people have died so far this year, according to UNHCR – and nearly 1,000 in the past week alone – up from 3,500 in all of 2014. In CapX earlier this week, Daniel Hannan argued that the solution was simple: Europe should “change the rules so that it’s possible to return boats safely to their point of departure. Only then will people stop attempting these dreadful crossings.” I strongly disagree. His proposal is immoral, unworkable and wrong-headed. There is a much better way forward.
Hannan is right that “The movement of people from Libya to Italy is not primarily a British responsibility.” But nor can we wash our hands of it entirely. The bombing of Libya by British planes and the failure to follow through by stabilising the country afterwards have created a murderous vacuum from which people are fleeing for their lives. Many more people are drowning in the Med this year because of the cancellation last October of Mare Nostrum, the Italian government’s search-and-rescue programme, a move for which Home Secretary Teresa May lobbied strongly. Contrary to her argument that rescuing people encouraged more to come, the numbers attempting the treacherous sea crossing have actually increased since the programme’s cancellation – and many more of those are dying. That’s why the prime minister, David Cameron, now rightly argues that the search-and-rescue programme needs to be restored to tackle this humanitarian emergency.
Hannan is also right to point out that the people smugglers are often callous criminals. But these mobsters, as he calls them, have such a lucrative business because of the prohibition of legal entry into Europe, whether as asylum seekers or people coming to work – just as the prohibition of alcohol in the United States in the 1920s made a mobster of Nucky Thompson in the TV show Boardwalk Empire and expanded the criminal empire of the mafia.
In any case, the main issue is not who is responsible for this tragic situation; it’s what to do about it.
Hannan argues that Europe ought to emulate Australia’s policy of “stopping the boats”. He claims, echoing that country’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, that this is “the only way to way to stop the deaths” and thus “the most decent, most compassionate solution”.
Not so. For a start, such a move would be illegal. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), drafted in 1948 in the midst of an even bigger refugee crisis after the Second World War, states that “everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own” and that “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries from persecution”. When Hannan says we should “change the rules”, does he propose that Britain should remove its signature from that Universal Declaration? Whatever Britain does, his proposal would scarcely be legal in Italy and Malta, which have no intention of withdrawing from either the UDHR or the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights.
Irrespective of what you think of international or European human-rights law, such a move would be immoral. “Returning boats safely to their point of departure” does not mean that people would be safe when they got there. Libya has descended into barbarous anarchy where Islamic State adherents behead Christians, secularists and moderate Muslims. How can sending people back to that hellhole possibly be “the most decent, most compassionate” solution?
Hannan’s proposal is also unworkable. Sending boats back wouldn’t deter people from coming, just as stopping the search-and-rescue programme didn’t. Why? Because some people would still get through, so desperate people would keep trying. The United States deports more than 400,000 migrants a year to Mexico and Central America – and they and others promptly come back, again and again. Besides, where would the resources come from to escort each and every overladen, scarcely seaworthy boat back to the Libyan shore? Would we rescue people if their boat sank – and if so how?
Last but not least, Hannan’s proposal treats only the symptoms of the problem, not the causes. The same is true of the flawed deal agreed by EU leaders yesterday. This involves enhanced resources for the EU’s Operation Triton – a surveillance mission limited to the EU’s coastal waters, rather than a broader search-and-rescue programme – with a weasel pledge to “increase the search and rescue possibilities within the mandate of FRONTEX” (ie, not a lot). There could also be a military mission to destroy smugglers’ ships in Libya (if it proves feasible).
But so long as there is carnage in Libya and elsewhere, desperate people will flee. So long as reaching Europe offers security and job opportunities, people will try to come. And so long as this is illegal and dangerous, people will die. So here are the outlines of a better way forward.
Out of humanitarian concern and self-interest, the EU – including Britain – ought to be investing more in stabilising its neighbourhood. Do we want to give free rein to Islamic State terrorists on Europe’s doorstep?
The EU in general and Britain in particular also ought to expand the number of refugees they accept. Even if all of the 219,000 people who made the sea crossing last year were admitted, they would account for only 0.04% of the total EU population of 500 million. It is simply not true that we couldn’t cope with more refugees: smaller, poorer countries such as Lebanon (population: 4.5 million), Jordan (6.5 million) and Turkey (75 million) together cope with nigh on 3 million Syrian refugees. Nor need it be a burden on public finances: if refugees were allowed to work, they could soon pay their way and contribute to society, just as other newcomers do.
Since our ageing continent with a shrinking locally-born population of working age needs people to do the jobs that locals don’t want to do – not least care for the elderly – Europe should also open up more opportunities to come work here legally. One reason why desperate people want to come to Britain in particular is because there is plenty of work that needs doing in our job-rich labour market – and it is impossible for a would-be fruit picker, office cleaner or hospital porter to get a visa to do so legally.
At the very least, we should do our best to save the lives of the desperate people fleeing death in Libya. Before it was cancelled, Italy’s search-and-rescue programme cost €9 million (£6.5 million) a month to run: 1.3 pence per person in the EU. Expanding it might cost two, three or even five pence a month each. Surely saving thousands of lives a year is worth that?