Here’s the crisis. Where’s the plan?

This is, undeniably, a crisis that is about to get much worse; and yes, there is definitely no doubt that we do need ‘immediate operational action’, as soon as possible

“We are in the middle of a crisis, and most likely it will get worse before it gets better. So what is needed in this time of crisis? We need immediate operational action. Second, we need solidarity, between people, between Member States and globally...”

In case you were wondering, that was how European Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johannsen prefaced her address to the European Parliament’s LIBE committee on 2 April: during a session held specifically to debate “the situation at the EU’s external borders in Greece.”

Now: far be it from me to minimise the problems currently faced by our friends in Greece – which incidentally look a whole lot like the ones we are facing here: including overcrowded detention facilities; immigrant vessels stranded offshore; outbreaks of COVID-19 in open or closed reception centres, etc., etc.

But the fact remains that Greece constitutes only one part of the EU’s external borders. Here in the central Mediterranean Italy and Malta are the two EU countries most immediately on the frontline of the immigration crisis: and, though the rest of Europe might not have realised it yet... it is fast developing into the single worst immigration crisis we have ever seen.

This week, Foreign Minister Evarist Bartolo wrote a letter to EU’s external relations representative Josep Borrell, calling for a pan-European humanitarian mission to Libya. Before turning to the request itself, though: in that letter, Bartolo also describes “a situation where over 650,000 people await to leave Libyan shores for Europe, as the rate of departures accelerates due to conflict, disease and lack of basic needs...”

I can’t confirm that figure myself; but if true, Bartolo’s estimate amounts to well over the entire resident population of Malta as it stands today. And while not all those 650,000 people are destined to wind up here (it’s a safe bet that most will eventually land in Italy, as has

been the norm since the crisis began around 2002)... well, even a fraction of that number would be enough to completely overwhelm our island’s logistical capabilities at the moment: even if we didn’t also have a COVID-19 pandemic to contend with at the same time.

This is partly because our logistical capabilities were never very abundant to begin with (thanks, in turn, to the policy of successive governments to keep detention/reception centres as Spartan as possible, precisely to deter immigrants from trying to come here at all); but also because this pre-existing problem has now been greatly exacerbated by at least two other factors.

The first is the situation in Libya itself; which is actually far worse than suggested by Bartolo’s letter. For while news of the Libyan civil war has understandably taken a backseat in recent weeks... the war itself is still in full swing, and shows no signs of abating.

A UN report issued just two days ago (12 April) confirms that: “An attack on the Man-Made River project has cut off access to safe water for more than 2 million people in Greater Tripoli and the western region”; “Continuing attacks on hospitals and critical water infrastructure affect people’s access to medical services and safe drinking water, exacerbating the threat of the pandemic”; and “The ongoing clashes, along with COVID-19 restriction measures, continue to hamper humanitarian access and the free movement of medical and other humanitarian personnel, as well as humanitarian assistance across the country.”

That, in a nutshell, is the situation those 650,000 asylum seekers – not to mention tens of thousands of Libyans who are now without food, water or safety – are trying to flee. Meanwhile, there are unconfirmed reports that the main detention centres of Tripoli and Misrata have now been emptied... which, if true, suggests that the regional government of Tripoli (i.e., the one

that is recognised and supported by the United Nations, though it only controls only around 1% of the country) is itself actively encouraging those people to get on board those boats, and head for Europe as fast as they can.

Taken together, this implies that the nature of the immigration crisis we are facing today is none too dissimilar from the COVID-19 pandemic itself. We are all now familiar with the need to ‘flatten the curve’ – i.e., to keep the rate of infection low, so as to avoid overwhelming the health services all at once – and, well, the same principle applies also to the rate of new arrivals of asylum seekers.

To put that as simply as possible: Malta could probably handle those 650,000, and more, with ease... if they were spaced out over a period of several years. (This is, in fact, what we have already been doing now, almost uninterruptedly, since at least 2002.)

But if – as is now a very real possibility – the same volume of people were to suddenly arrive over the space of a few months, weeks or even days... at the risk of understatement, the consequences would be catastrophic: even without the added worry of a recent COVID-19 outbreak in Malta’s largest detention centre (which raises the additional question of where all these people could possibly be housed, without condemning them to almost certain infection).

Meanwhile, the second consideration is that (as Bartolo puts it): “certain front-line Member States, including Malta, have closed their ports in view of how all resources, especially medical and those related to security, are being channelled to mitigate and treat the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Now this, admittedly, is problematic to people like myself, who have long argued (and will continue to argue) that there can be no justification for any dereliction of the international duty to save lives at sea. And provided that the number of people in distress within Malta’s SAR zone

(41 at the last count) remains manageable... there is no reason that I can see not to make exceptions to save those people from drowning; even if we do retain our controversial policy of keeping the harbours closed for all non-essential cases.

Another deeply disturbing aspect of this policy is that... well, it also has to be seen for what it really is, against the ‘realpolitik’ backdrop of international relations. A chess-move, with living people instead of pawns. It is Malta’s (and Italy’s) way of pressuring the international community – the EU in particular – into finally ‘doing something’ about the problem.

Is that reprehensible? Yes, certainly: and it will become criminal, too, when lives are inevitably lost because of it. But we also have to be realistic, on at least two fronts.

One, when those numbers start to spiral out of control, it will become impossible to save them all even with the best of intentions... for the simple reason that we just don’t have the logistical means to conduct life-saving operations on such a large scale. (Note: the situation might be slightly different for Italy, which has a somewhat larger military/naval capability than we do... the problem there, however, is that the Italian army now literally has its arms full... clearing Italian cities of corpses...)

Two, no matter how heartless or own ‘closed port’ policy may seem... it is still no less reprehensible than the EU’s response to this crisis, which (so far, at any rate) has been exactly the same as to every other migration crisis we have experienced since joining in 2004... i.e., nothing at all.

OK, perhaps it would be slightly unrealistic to expect a reply to Bartolo’s letter after just two days (seeing as it took the EU five whole weeks to respond to an emergency plea for help by Italy, last month).

And besides: I have my own doubts about Bartolo’s proposal, too. For one thing, it smacks too heavily of that typically European fantasy, whereby any problem can be automatically solved just by ‘throwing money at it’; and two, it overlooks the teenie-weenie detail that Libya is currently in the throes of a full-blown civil war: and it is, therefore, impossible to guarantee the safety of any humanitarian mission on Libyan soil (or even, for that matter, that the proposed E150 million will not end up financing military operations on both sides of the conflict.)

All the same, however; at least, it’s a proposal of sorts... unlike anything we’ve seen coming from the other side of the negotiation table to date.

At this stage, then, the real question staring us in the face is not so much whether we all individually ‘agree’ with how countries like Malta and Italy (and, why not? Greece, too) are responding to the emergency.

It is rather that we know (or should know) that we are about to be hit by a serious humanitarian disaster... complete with the possibility of literally thousands (if not tens of thousands) of people drowning on Europe’s own doorstep... and there is still no sign whatsoever of any cohesive international plan to counter it: nothing, in a word, beyond the individual, isolated attempts of the countries most immediately exposed.

And this brings me back to Ylva Johannsen’s words to the European Parliament last week. Yes, indeed: for once, we can safely say that we are in perfect agreement.

This is, undeniably, a crisis that is about to get much worse; and yes, there is definitely no doubt that we do need ‘immediate operational action’, as soon as possible.

So... erm... is this ‘immediate operational action’ going to actually happen, or not? And if so, when?

Not to rush you, or anything, but: well, we do need an answer rather urgently, you know... down here, at the frontier of this other ‘external border of the EU’...