The Mediterranean has become a vast, forbidding moat—a death trap--that separates Fortress Europe from the millions of third world refugees on the other side.
The images are appalling: a creaking, ramshackle trawler capsizes, hundreds of passengers trapped in the hull, locked inside by the smugglers; criminally overloaded dinghies sink under the weight of panic-stricken passengers; tormented faces of people who cannot swim hang on to whatever will float, no way to save their screaming children; endless rows of dripping body bags.
But, despite the fact that more than 1,500 migrants have drowned so far this year, the president of Italy warns that one million more are still determined to come. Though the smugglers are mainly operating out of the shattered state of Libya, their human cargo is the product of collapsed or collapsing states that range all the way from Bangladesh to Afghanistan, to across the Middle East and Africa.
Huge numbers are escaping the violence and slaughter in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Libya, Yemen and the Sudan. Others are fleeing collapsed economies, drought, famine, and woefully inept, incredibly corrupt and brutal governments.
What is also appalling, however, is that the peoples of Europe—and most of their leaders—have done their best to ignore this growing crisis. They’ve been warned about it for years.
Previously the Italians—most affected by the boatloads from Libya--attempted to tackle the problem themselves, expanding naval patrols across a wide swathe of the Mediterranean. Last year they rescued scores of ships, saved more than 500 from drowning, and brought more than 130,000 migrants to Italian shores.
The Italians asked for help from their European partners, but the consensus was that the Italian program was too successful. It was encouraging ever more migrants to attempt the hazardous passage.
Europe’s answer was to set up a new diminished program, with a budget just one third the size, far fewer ships, and range of operation. The idea was that once the refugees realized that the voyage to Europe was extremely perilous--that they and their families wouldn’t necessarily be plucked from the seas if their ships foundered, they’d stop coming.
Many who knew the situation well warned that plan was just a recipe for tragedy. The refugees would keep on coming, no matter what. Any risk was preferable to the hellish conditions in their homelands.
This awful situation and Europe’s attempts to ignore it, recall other times when much of the world—including the United Sates, Canada, and the UK— closed their doors to most of the millions of Jews desperate to escape the looming Nazi threat in Europe.
Some of the scenes from the Mediterranean also parallel the plight of the “boat people” who consigned their fate to anything that floated to flee the Communist takeover in Vietnam.
The Italians are particularly outraged by the situation. Of the 28 states of Europe, other than Italy, only four –France, Germany, the UK, Sweden--have been willing to accept at least some of the refugees.
But now, day after day, obliged to watch the heart-rending images on TV, Europe—and its leaders--are forced to somehow acknowledge the catastrophe.
And what has quickly become very clear is that the countries of Europe have no unified policy on immigration. Nor are they likely to come up with one in the immediate future. There are too many opposing views.
Of course, everyone is for hunting down and eradicating the smugglers. But how could anyone hope to wipe out the brazen horde of human traffickers thriving in Libya’s current mayhem?
Europe will certainly be obliged to expand immediately a joint naval operation to rescue migrants at sea.
But, you can be sure, others will once again protest their navies shouldn’t be encouraging more refugees.
Another policy, of course, would be to open the doors. Despite Europe’s current problems, its countries are still immensely wealthy compared to the destitute lands from which these migrants hail. Let them in. Share a bit of your wealth. In the end, they’ll only add to Europe’s prosperity. Affluent nations in other parts of the globe should also help.
Nice thoughts, but that’s not at all the mood in much of the world these days, certainly not in Europe. For years before this latest refugee tsunami, anti-immigrant parties have been on the rise across Europe. Immigrants are accused of lowering wages, sponging off welfare systems, fomenting crime, breeding too fast, destroying national character, even plotting a religious takeover.
No, we’re unlikely to witness any mainstream European leader, who values his office, calling for an open door to these destitute masses.
Which brings us to another very popular approach: O.K. We rescue the refugees, but then we immediately ship them all back to their homelands, or wherever—but on their side of the moat. After all, we can’t save the world. And they’ve brought this tragedy on themselves with their corrupt governments, their warring peoples and tribes and religious crazies.
There’s a certain truth to that charge. But it’s too easy to forget that it was a NATO coalition—spearheaded by the French—the Americans “leading from behind”, that overthrew Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, shattering what was at least the semblance of a state into a host of warring tribes and factions, spewing arms and violence across much of Western Africa—and throwing open the doors to the human smugglers.
Similarly it was the American-led invasion of Iraq that shattered that country and helped inflame many of its neighbors.
The vastly wealthy Gulf states are also implicated, currently engaged in a proxy war against Iran in Syria that has created the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. And now the Saudis —with U.S. backing- have opened a ferocious new front in Yemen, the most desperately poor of all Arab states.
Which points up the fact that the only real, long-term solution is to deal with the problems that are provoking the flight. Rather than inflame the situation with reckless rhetoric and sophisticated arms, negotiate an end to the incredibly sanguinary conflicts that stretch across most of the Middle East. Easier said than done, but not as catastrophic as the current policies.
At the same time, we have to help those countries to develop economically.
The amounts needed are huge-but not compared to other things the world is spending its resources on. China is already pouring tens of billions of dollars into infrastructure and new investments from Afghanistan to Pakistan to Iraq and across Africa. Of course, they’ve got their own agenda. But America’s post World War II Marshall Plan was certainly not the product of unalloyed altruism.
No, we’re not suggesting a Marshall Plan. The situations are vastly different. But image if the trillions of dollars spent by the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, had gone to development rather than wanton destruction. Ditto the hundreds of billions of dollars a year the world is continuing to spend on arms.
Saudi Arabia, for instance spent more than 80 billion dollars on weaponry last year alone. The Emirates spent $23 billion. Even tiny Qatar just signed a $11 billion arms dollar deal with the Pentagon. Meanwhile President Obama just renewed $1.2 billion dollars in mostly military aid to Egypt.
The bottom line is: No matter how much Europe would like to hunker down behind its moat, despite the wars, the poverty, disease, drought, and famine--the destitute masses on the other side of the Med, are going to increase their exponential growth.
Specifics? Yemen, one of the poorest of the Arab states, has more than doubled its population from 11.7 million in 1990 to 25 million today. Egypt has soared from 56 million in 1990 to 85 million. Nigeria from 95.6 million to 183 million.
In fact, if current population trends continue, the population of all of Africa will grow from 1.1 billion today to 4.4 billion by the end of the century.
Face it, neither vast moats, nor electrified two hundred foot high fences---they’re just not going to work.