Migration requires a long-term vision

After so many years of virtually ignoring the issue, it makes a welcome change that Europe finally intends to address the problem head-on. 

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

On Thursday, a summit of European leaders resulted in an EU resolution to prioritise the fight against human trafficking, in a bid to reduce the number of fatalities in the Mediterranean sea.

After so many years of virtually ignoring the issue, it makes a welcome change that Europe finally intends to address the problem head-on. This clearly vindicates repeated calls by Malta over the years for the EU to acknowledge that large-scale irregular migration into Europe is a problem that can only be tackled through the concerted efforts of all member states: not just the ones directly on the frontier with North Africa.

Had these calls been heeded earlier, we might not have reached the tragic stage where as many as 700 people – men, women and children – lost their lives in a shipwreck: one of several to have occurred on Europe’s doorstep in recent years. Clearly, this is too high a price to pay for the EU’s inaction until now. 

But even though Thursday’s summit delivered (as Prime Minister Joseph Muscat put it) a ‘strong message’, to date there still has been no corresponding action to back it up. The EU statement is heavy on rhetoric, but sparse in the details of what action it actually intends to take. Despite emphasising rescue at sea as a top priority, there was no clear indication of any extension of current European naval operations. Frontex II has so far proven ineffective, largely on account of reluctance on the part of individual member states to provide the necessary manpower and assets. The EU declaration does not actually address this logistical shortcoming in any meaningful way.

Moreover, the summit conclusion refers to a strategy of ‘destroying people traffickers’ boats’; but while this may be effective in the short term, it is difficult to view the measure as anything but a short-sighted solution that stolidly refuses to acknowledge the real roots of the problem.

Migration is not caused by the existence of human traffickers. On the contrary: human traffickers exist as a response to a demand that is very real. Even if all such boats were to be destroyed, there will still remain thousands of people willing to pay up to 1,000 dollars – an inconceivable sum, given where they are coming from and the reasons for their flight – to risk their lives on a doomed voyage to Europe. Unless this demand is reduced, more human trafficking operations will inevitably arise to replace those we destroy today.

Even the short-term strategy, such that it is, is questionable in the extreme. There are situations where the destruction of a migrant boat under certain circumstances may be perfectly legal and otherwise appropriate: for example, after a rescue operation when migrants have been safely removed from an unflagged and unseaworthy vessel. But the wording of the resolution is vague and unclear. 

Coupled with a parallel suggestion to take military action against coastal trafficking operations in Libya, it could even be interpreted as an intention to bomb vessels along the coast before they set sail. This would almost certainly endanger lives beyond those of the targeted traffickers. The propensity for ‘friendly fire’ is too large to ignore.

Armed intervention in Libya is itself a dangerous and unpredictable proposal. There may be legal repercussions, and – even worse – a military response from Libya that would deepen the already existing conflict. Already Libya’s Tripoli-based government has described the proposal as ‘unacceptable’, and hinted at a possible reaction if Libya’s territorial sovereignty is violated. Paradoxically, this would almost certainly result in an increase in people seeking to flee a warzone.

It bears remembering that the current escalation of the crisis is attributable to a deterioriation of security in Libya after the collapse of the Gaddafi regime. Bombing Libya today would only exacerbate destabilisation.

Besides, even if the Tripoli government is not formally recognised by the EU, one can sympathise with Foreign Minister Muhammed El-ghirani when he argues that “You cannot just decide to hit. Let’s say you strike a particular site, how will you know that you did not hit an innocent person, a fisherman? Does Europe have pinpoint accuracy? So we are saying, let’s do this together…”

So while the EU’s renewed commitment is welcome, it remains disappointing. One expects a considerably more detailed plan from the EU than the sketchy and dubious proposals outlined last Thursday. And while the strategy of targeting human traffickers may indeed be needed for the present, one also expects Europe to take a longer-term view of the issue. 

The discussion must be broadened to address how such issues as the overwhelming disparity of wealth between Africa and the Western world can be bridged. We must ask ourselves why famine and drought kill so many people each year, while Europe and America throw most of their surplus luxuries away. Questions must be asked about ongoing wars in sub-Saharan Africa. Who provides weapons for such conflicts? Which countries profit from the ensuing chaos?

One would expect, in brief, a commitment to also address the injustices and unacceptable living conditions in the migrants’ countries of origin. Only then can there be any possible light at the end of the tunnel.

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