Mediterranean migrant deaths: restart the rescue, but restart nation-building in Libya too

Rescue boats alone are not enough


With the exception of a few professional trolls, there has been near-universal shock and sadness at the recent tragedies in the Mediterranean. Up to 1,500 migrants are believed to have drowned this year alone; the latest sinking, claiming the lives of almost 700, is thought to be the largest loss of life during a migrant crossing in Europe.

What makes it worse is the knowledge that European governments, including our own, are acquiescing in the tragedy. At the end of last year Europe stopped its search and rescue missions in the Mediterranean amid complaints from some EU member states that they were unaffordable. Meanwhile our own Foreign Office disingenuously argued that the prospect of being rescued from the sea was acting as “an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths”.

The argument was a familiar one; how often do we hear it said by the current government that the UK benefit system provides a similar ‘pull factor’ to migrants?

This line of reasoning, if you can call it that, has now been exposed for what it is: callous nonsense. It is nonsense because the real and overriding ‘pull factor’ is the relative safety of Europe when contrasted with brutal and war-ravaged Libya. For thousands of people, the prospect of staying in Libya is viewed as a greater risk than taking to the seas in a ramshackle and overcrowded boat. The latter offers a chance, however slim, of eventual sanctuary in Europe.

Libya is the starting point for around 90 per cent of the migrants reaching Italy by sea, according to the Italian government. The reasons for this are clear: violent militias dominate large swathes of the country and ISIS controls parts of the north and east.

The fashionable view is that this is the fault of the west for aiding the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi back in 2011. As with Iraq, if only the west hadn’t meddled the picture in Libya might not be quite so grim – or so the argument goes.

Apart from being a shot in the dark, this is a monumental re-writing of history. Back in 2011, a UN resolution authorised “all necessary measures” to protect Libyan civilians after Gaddafi’s forces began a brutal assault on rebel-held Benghazi. As the dictator’s forces closed in on the city, 200,000 people fled the fighting and hundreds of cars full of people were seen heading for the Egyptian border.

Western nations may well have sat on their hands and given Gaddafi’s army a free-reign in Benghazi. They had done a similar thing in the past in Rwanda and Bosnia. The mistake is to believe that this option, if you can call it that, would have left Libya peaceful and secure. Take a look at Syria (200,000 dead and counting) if you find yourself tempted by the idea that allowing a dictator to re-assert power against a nascent rebellion does not have a bloody cost. Had Gaddafi remained in the saddle, hundreds perhaps thousands of Libyans would have been killed – with thousands more likely to have fled the country.

The real disgrace in Libya was not intervention, which was based on a duty to protect civilians; it was the abandonment of the nascent post-Gaddafi government in Libya to chaos. As Perry Abdulkadir put it on these pages last year:

After Gaddafi was killed in late October 2011, the interim Libyan government asked NATO to extend its mission until the end of the year. When the UN Security Council withdrew support of a continued mission, though, NATO took it as an excuse to rid itself of responsibility in Libya.

Libya collapsed into chaos because the state lost its monopoly on force. The west, which had helped to overthrow Gaddafi, did little to assist the state as it tried to reassert its authority. As a result the power vacuum in the country was filled by hundreds of militias and – worst of all – the sadists of ISIS. In this context, the fact that thousands of people wish to leave Libya by any available means ought not to come as a surprise.

And so preventing further tragedies in Europe’s seas requires a two-pronged approach: restarting the rescues, yes; but restarting the nation-building in Libya, too. Ultimately that means helping the Libyan government to disarm ISIS and other violent militias.

James Bloodworth is the editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow him on Twitter

As you’re here, we have something to ask you. What we do here to deliver real news is more important than ever. But there’s a problem: we need readers like you to chip in to help us survive. We deliver progressive, independent media, that challenges the right’s hateful rhetoric. Together we can find the stories that get lost.

We’re not bankrolled by billionaire donors, but rely on readers chipping in whatever they can afford to protect our independence. What we do isn’t free, and we run on a shoestring. Can you help by chipping in as little as £1 a week to help us survive? Whatever you can donate, we’re so grateful - and we will ensure your money goes as far as possible to deliver hard-hitting news.

105 Responses to “Mediterranean migrant deaths: restart the rescue, but restart nation-building in Libya too”

  1. itdoesntaddup

    The migrants may board boats in Libya, but only a minority of them are Libyan. Most of them have trudged hundreds of miles from Somalia, Eritrea, Chad, Mali, Sudan, Nigeria etc. and now also Yemen. The flow is driven by a combination of economic pull and Islamic violence from Boko Haram, the Janjaweed, and other assorted ISIS affiliates, now including the Saudi airforce.

    Any policy designed to tackle the problem must recognise these facts, rather than pretend that the problem starts and ends in Libya. That the migrants seek a better life for themselves is a plank that should be built upon. What is needed is a way to equip them to make that life in their own countries, and encourage them to do so.

    Your recommendation to run Libya as a colony is only a start: if you wish to pursue that route you would need to re-colonise much of Northern Africa and the Middle East. We do not begin to have a defence budget to cope with that – whether in the UK, the US or the wider EU/NATO. Besides, it is ultimately those like the migrants who must make a proper go of it.

  2. damon

    Libya is only the end of the line of a network of migration routes across Africa.
    Here’s a map.

    The logic of a search and rescue operation would be to actually send ferries to Libya and be having departures every few days. Why not? Some ships could go to Italy, some to France, and some direct to England. Why not? Why make the people go through murderous smuggling networks?
    Then as these routes become established we could be encouraging all the EU countries to take their share. Including eastern Europe. Over a ten year period we’d be seeing millions of people coming here.
    We probably won’t be doing much for the countries they leave behind though, as the people migrating may be their brightest and best.

    And as we’ve seen on the news this week, in the southern and central parts of Africa, the migration routes go south to South Africa. None of this is ideal. It looks like some kind of European colonialism my now be needed again if we are ”to save” Africa.

  3. James Chilton

    It will be very costly to create the political and economic conditions and build the infrastructures in Africa that might, in a couple of generations, give very poor people incentives to “stay at home”.

    Unless affluent societies in the West provide the financial resources for this humane alternative, the African nightmare of suffering will continue indefinitely.

  4. itdoesntaddup

    I do not think that financial resources are the key here: aid policy has been a consistent failure, with the money not being invested in ways that produce the outcomes. Rather, the issue is governance. Well run countries do not encourage mass emigration.

  5. Mike Shepherd

    A proportion of this current wave of migration is also driven by criminal activity in vulnerable communities across Africa, targeting those who might have the ability to pay to migrate. The reality is that many are put to sea in unseaworthy floating death ships at gunpoint once the embarkation point is reached and money has been paid.
    In terms of Libya, it is currently ungovernable, an extremely dangerous place to be and vulnerable to insurgency by extremist groups seeking to establish a foothold in new territory.

Comments are closed.