In this UK election, let’s talk about emergency services

It's time to stop arguing about blame, and instead put in place an effective rescue mission for desperate migrants


With a death toll close to that of the Titanic sinking, a week of disasters in the Mediterranean has forced UK and EU leaders to pay attention to the failure of their brutal policy of withdrawing rescue services.

The UK must join with other EU members to restore an effective Mediterranean rescue mission.

The UK government can and should also act immediately to fund initiatives such as the joint MSF/MOAS rescue mission.

These disasters have made clear what is necessary. Still there are attempts by UK and EU leaders to displace responsibility, to distract from the primary causes and thus avoid effective action.

This exodus is not caused by ‘human traffickers‘, it’s caused primarily by war. The term ‘human traffickers’ is misleading, conflating people-smuggling with enslavement. Those fleeing across the Mediterranean, while they may be exploited by boat owners, are not enslaved by them. They have not been kidnapped and sold into bondage, but have for the most part made a rational choice between trying to survive war, and trying to survive the sea.

Attacking smugglers makes no more sense than withdrawing rescue services did.

It’s not that long ago that some Europeans were charging other Europeans who were fleeing genocide enormous sums of money to make an escape by sea. For example Denmark proudly remembers 1943, when almost all of Denmark’s Jews escaped the Holocaust with the help of their fellow citizens.

Less emphasis is placed on the fact that many were charged amounts equivalent of up to £5,500 for places on boats making the relatively short crossing to safety in Sweden.

Where there is desperation there will be exploitation, so we need to tackle the reasons for the desperation to stop the exploitation:

  • Resettle more of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees.
  • Create safe routes as an alternative to dangerous sea crossings.
  • Act to end the worst of the violence: stop Assad’s barrel bombs.

Another diversion in some responses to the Mediterranean crisis has been to blame the deaths on NATO’s intervention in Libya.

But note that Libyans themselves are barely represented amongst those fleeing. Syrians make up over a third of those entering the EU irregularly according to figures from Frontex, the EU’s border agency. The next largest national group are people from Eritrea. 67,000 Syrians sought asylum in Europe last year, most arriving by sea.

In contrast UNHCR figures show the current total of Libyan refugees and asylum seekers at under 6,000 worldwide—though the number seeking refuge abroad may yet rise significantly as UNHCR believe up to 400,000 Libyans are internally displaced.

The true role of Libya in the Mediterranean crisis is as a place of transit, though it is far from being the only one. Sailing from Libya has become easier since the fall of the Gaddafi dictatorship.

Previously, a deal between Italy and Libya resulted in the regime acting as Europe’s outsourced border guards, locking up people trying to flee on boats. Here’s a description from a 2010 report by PRI’s The World, describing the experiences of Daoud from Somalia:

Daoud tried to make the trip north aboard a smuggling vessel, but he was arrested as he tried to board, and sent to a prison in Tripoli, where he became seriously ill.

“I believe it used to be a chemical plant because all of us had skin rashes and the Libyan prison guards used to beat us at least twice a day,” Daoud said. “And that’s what created and forced us to break out of jail. My intention was just to get out of Libya and head to the seas and to see where my luck takes me.”

Daoud alleges that his dark skin color had a lot to do with how he was treated in Libya: “They directly called me a slave. So, it was horrible. They will tell you in your face.”

Jean-Philippe Chauzy is director of communications for the International Organization for Migration in Geneva. He’s traveled frequently to Libya, and said Daoud’s story is shared by many migrants there.

Daoud’s experience shows why this policy was morally unsustainable. The collapse of Gaddafi’s regime showed it was also practically unsustainable. Had NATO not intervened to protect civilians there, the likely result would not have been a more stable Libya, but a longer and more bloody revolution as we’ve seen in Syria, with many more desperate people fleeing to Europe’s shores.

Kellie Strom blogs and tweets here 

36 Responses to “In this UK election, let’s talk about emergency services”

  1. littleoddsandpieces

    Why not open properly organised refugee camps in Ebola affected African nations.

    Buying from local community the needs of the refugee camps, so pouring that money into clean water, social housing, public medicine projects, into the local community, so as to prevent Ebola epidemic ever again.

    The traffickers then have no supply, as housing, clothing, food, and a safe haven are without any need of the asylum seekers paying any money at all to them.

    Instead use their own money to set up little micro businesses in the refugee camps.

    Why cross an ocean at all.

    Why not feed and clothe the poor, both asylum seeker and local community?

  2. Copyright101

    Previously, a deal between Italy and Libya resulted in the regime acting
    as Europe’s outsourced border guards, locking up people trying to flee
    on boats

    True. And now we need to be our own border guards.

    Once it’s clear that every migrant will be turned away and/or deported they will stop coming. Those who encourage them are condemning more to drown.

  3. damon

    Can someone explain what the point of these kinds of posts actually is?
    It’s someone’s point of view, fair enough. But is worth no more than mine or anyone else’s I guess.
    Maybe its just that it’s supported by the people who run this blog. Fair enough again. It still doesn’t mean it’s worth anything more than a Ukip supporter’s opinion.

    I just heard a spokesman for the Green Party refuse to answer the presenter on the Radio 4 programme’s questions about how the practical side of granting amnesty to people fleeing war and poverty would work in practice. He was asked about six times about the detail of where people would apply if they were not going to have to travel up to the Mediterranean coast and get on boats.
    Could Nigerians apply in Nigeria for example. What if they were refused, as most from there surely would be. The Green Party guy wouldn’t go near such questions even if they were asked, because the pretence is that Europe can take nearly all people who would need to be saved from danger and poverty. There’s too much BS in this whole debate, and that is harming the migrants IMO.
    If we can’t have a proper discussion, things won’t get done and more people will die.

    How many Syrian asylum seekers is Europe meant to take? Millions of them? Will they be expected to go home afterwards? Many or most asylum seekers who go to Europe don’t go home afterwards.
    After a couple of years that’s it. They have families and then have no intention of going back for good.
    Even if they regularly go back to their country or origin on long visits. Somalians do that all the time I believe. Because they don’t come from the worst effected regions.
    Asylum became a big racket, and the false claiming people ruined it for the genuine ones.

  4. damon

    Another point about saving people at sea. If you think it will save lives fair enough.
    Even if you hate it, would you concede that the Australian policy of taking migrants to Pacific islands has also saved lives because the boats have stopped coming? And that if Australian made it clear that it was going to start search and rescue missions off the Indonesian coast where the refugee boats used to start from, it might encourage that to start up again?

    And why save them at sea and have to search for them? Why not put ferries into Libya and take them directly off from there? Or at least have the ferries or ships waiting a mile off shore and have people come out to them on rowing boats. Keeping within sight of the shore so people didn’t get lost at sea.
    And we could run this programme for ten years and how many people do you think might come?
    They would be chartering buses from all over Africa to head for Libya.

    Its not just Katie Hopkins who has spoken of military solutions BTW. Paddy Ashdown has talked of destroying boats before they are used, and a former admiral has said we could turn the boats back.
    But would have to be in close to the shore blockading the ports like Zuwara which is a smuggling centre where boats have been leaving from. It’s not a big town. Maybe we could even occupy it for a while to make it clear that ”we” know what they are doing and we will come for the men from the clans who are behind the smuggling.

  5. V Hale

    This great video illustrates, with gumballs as visual tools to show numbers, the fruitlessness and counterproductivity of giving asylum to people fleeing from poverty

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