Human trafficking is the symptom, not the cause

EU heads of state and government will convene in Brussels tomorrow for an extraordinary summit, to discuss an issue that the European Union has so far studiously avoided discussing for years. 

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Following the deadliest migrant tragedy in the Mediterranean yet, in which a staggering 700 people lost their lives in a single shipwreck, the Prime Ministers of Malta and Italy have called on the rest of the European Union to step up the fight against human trafficking. 

To this end, EU heads of state and government will convene in Brussels tomorrow for an extraordinary summit, to discuss an issue that the European Union has so far studiously avoided discussing for years. 

It speaks volumes about Europe’s current state of denial regarding irregular migration, that no fewer than 700 people had to die for the EU to agree to even discuss the issue at all. But even now that a discussion is finally on the cards, it would appear that the real substance of the issue will not be discussed at all.

A clampdown on human trafficking may well save lives in the short term. But this approach is hopelessly flawed in that it completely misses the bigger picture. This crisis has not been caused by human trafficking. On the contrary, trafficking is only a symptom. In any situation where hundreds of thousands of people are willing to risk their lives in search of a better future, there will always be unscrupulous criminals ready to exploit their plight for financial gain. So even if all current human trafficking operations were to be successfully halted – an unlikely proposition in itself – it will only be a matter of time before a new wave of organised crime rises to replace the people-smugglers operating today. 

For this reason, the focus of an EU debate should extend to the root causes of the current refugee crisis gripping the central Mediterranean. And addressing these causes involves far more than random crime-fighting operations here and there. Europe must also acknowledge its own share of the blame for the current state of affairs. It must acknowledge that its own policies regarding Africa in general, and Libya in particular, have brought about a situation in which untold numbers of people are ready and willing to risk their lives in search of a new life. 

Anyone who has observed migration patterns in the central Mediterranean will have noticed a significant development in recent years. What started out some 15 years ago as a low-level operation, characterised by random boatloads carrying fewer than 30 passengers at a time, has now grown to become a much larger and more regular occurrence, in which as many as 900 passengers are ferried in a single crossing. The numbers involved have skyrocketed over the past few years… ever since the fall of the Gaddafi regime plunged Libya into chaos and anarchy.

The phenomenon we are witnessing can no longer be dismissed as a migration fuelled by economic pressures alone. It is now a full-blown refugee crisis brought about (in part) by war on the border of the Mediterranean itself. The majority of the refugees may themselves hail from sub-Saharan Africa – but what they are now fleeing is no longer just the turmoil in their own countries, but also the instability and fear that currently grips Libya: then as now the single main point of departure for so many asylum seekers bound for Europe.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat is therefore correct when he argues that the primary objective should be the securitisation of Libya. But this objective cannot be achieved merely by clamping down on human trafficking. It would require massive mobilisation of military assets, ideally under the auspices of the United Nations Security Council.

Even with this objective achieved, the wider causes will still remain to be addressed: namely, war, poverty, drought, famine, and the outrageous discrepancy in living standards between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa. One cannot reasonably expect these problems to be solved by a simple discussion in Brussels. But unless we do begin discussing how to improve the situation in the home countries of millions of asylum seekers, we cannot ever expect any genuine improvement.  

And yet, the focus of the debate in the wake of the latest tragedy is even now still rooted in an unsightly knee-jerk reaction to defend the integrity of Europe’s borders from mass-infiltration. Apart from hunting down human traffickers, Europe’s response to the tragedy has also focused on the need to ‘send migrants back to their home countries’. 

Even if one accepts that this is a legitimate aim to pursue, when thousands of people are drowning on Europe’s doorstep… one has to rescue those people before they can be safely deported.

Sadly, it is abundantly clear from Europe’s reaction that most European countries are simply not motivated by a desire or an impulse to save lives. It would seem that a very basic, entry-level component of European civilisation – the value of human life – has been somehow lost in the last few years.

If the European Union still harbours aspirations to act as a force for global good, it must go back to basics and stop placing its own petty interests above those of collective human decency. In the face of such tragedy, our efforts should be focused on saving lives first, ahead of all other considerations.

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