15 April 2015

How can we halt migrant deaths in the Mediterranean?


If 400 people had been killed in Rome this week, in a train crash or in a collapsed building, Europe’s airwaves would have been full for days with coverage of the terrible disaster. When those 400 dead people are migrants crossing the Mediterranean, heading for the coast of Italy this week, it gets attention. But not nearly so much.

In one sense this is entirely understandable. Media organisations respond to public demand and work on the assumption that viewers and readers tend to be interested most of all in news that impacts on people like themselves. There are exceptional stories, of course, when the numbers involved are so big as to be truly shocking or the occurrence of a natural disaster on a grand scale reminds people in distant lands of the fragility of human life. Still, most news is domestic.

On another level, the deaths of 400 migrants getting so little attention is not understandable at all. It is shaming that this should happen on Europe’s borders today.

The BBC reports of the latest incident:

“About 400 migrants are feared drowned after their boat capsized off Libya, survivors have told Save the Children. The Italian coast guard rescued 144 people from the boat on Monday and launched an air and sea search operation in hopes of saving others. Hundreds more migrants rescued from boats in the Mediterranean are due to arrive in Sicily during the day. More than 8,000 migrants have been picked up since Friday, and more boats are heading for the Italian coast. Italy’s interior ministry has instructed officials throughout the country to be prepared to house the new arrivals, many of whom are children.”

We are so glib in the West about the impact of globalisation, because we enjoy the many benefits such as cheap goods. We produce graphics which show the beneficial impact on workers in developing countries and congratulate ourselves. But it is panglossian to pretend there are not enormous downsides. One consequence of globalisation is that large numbers of poor people in search of a better life, lured by what they see and hear, are at the mercy of crooks.

As a fascinating report from 2014 by the International Organisation for Migration makes clear, it is difficult even to keep a proper track of the full scale of the problem. In Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost During Migration researchers explain why estimates of the number of deaths vary. Media interest also waxes and wanes according to what else is around at any given moment.

Incidentally, this is far from just being a European problem. In Fatal Journeys there is an account of people smuggling in Yemen that breaks the heart.

I do not claim to know what the answer is. It simply strikes me as most odd that despite the West’s spend on defence and security, we seem so uninterested in putting more of those resources to work tackling the people smugglers and modern slave traders. At CapX I would be very interested to hear from anyone – academics, government officials, readers – who has useful ideas on what might be done.

Even from the perspective of self interest, we should be deeply concerned about the security risk. The shift in recent years has been, for obvious reasons, towards increased migrant traffic from parts of the world riven by terrorism.

But those who pay the price and lose their lives in the trip to Europe are most often just people trying to escape in search of life’s basics, meaning a job, a home, food, and a measure of security for their children.

From that Fatal Journeys report, here is the story from 2014 of Louay Khalid and his attempt to cross the Mediterranean.

‘He fled from the violent outbreak in the Syrian Arab Republic via Lebanon and Egypt, eventually ending up in Libya. After working there for a year, he decided to leave the troubled country. Unable to return to his home country or to bring his family to Libya, Louay Khalid planned his crossing to Europe. However, he was completely unaware of the risks of the journey. The boat on which he crossed the Mediterranean tragically sank on 10 October 2013.

After paying a smuggler 1,300 Libyan dinars (about USD 1,075) for the trip, Louay Khalid was locked in a house for about two weeks with around 450 other aspiring migrants. They were not allowed to leave the house and were told that if they did they would be shot. Eventually, they were loaded onto trucks before being stuffed onto a heavily overloaded boat that was steered by other migrants.

“Once I saw the vessel . . . I could immediately tell that we were too many people. They were people everywhere you could look – people in the engine room, people on the mast even – literally everywhere.”

Shortly after departure, police approached the boat twice, urging the vessel to return. However, the migrants continued their journey until maritime police appeared. The police requested the vessel to stop its journey, but the vessel kept on moving, at which point, the police fired shots and began to “round” the vessel, throwing ropes to jam the engine fan. Even though passengers were crying and parents holding their children closely to them, the firing continued until the cabin broke down.

During the commotion, two women gave birth. Finally, the police left. The following day, the migrants called the Red Cross in Lampedusa for help. When an airplane arrived after four hours, the people on board attempted so desperately to attract its attention that the vessel capsized. When the plane returned with life buoys, many of the people had already drowned.

“I was wearing a lifejacket . . . that saved my life. The people who were inside the boat all died.”

Finally, a helicopter provided life jackets, and two speedboats rescued some of the women and children. Floats were provided for approximately 40 survivors, who waited another day and night before being taken into custody in Malta.’

What use is all our prosperity, our smug consumerism and our technological progress, if we cannot tackle this stuff?

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX.