Sunday 23 October 2016

Despite our coffin ships, we too have failed the refugees

Published 21/04/2015 | 02:30

Flowers are seen, during a silent commemoration for the victims of a boat accident, in Vienna (REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger)
Flowers are seen, during a silent commemoration for the victims of a boat accident, in Vienna (REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger)
The wreckage of a boat used by migrants is seen in Catania's Harbour, Italy, Monday. A smuggler's boat crammed with hundreds of people overturned off Libya's coast on Saturday as rescuers approached, causing what could be the Mediterranean's deadliest known migrant tragedy. So far rescuers saved 28 people and recovered 24 bodies (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)
People hold a sign reading "rescue" during a silent commemoration for the victims of a boat accident, in Vienna, April 20. As many as 700 migrants were feared dead on Sunday after their boat capsized in the Mediterranean, raising pressure on Europe to face down anti-immigrant bias and find money for support as turmoil in Libya and the Middle East worsens the crisis (REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger)

Yesterday, politicians in the EU, who effectively signed the death warrants of the 1,500 refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean so far this year, were wringing their hands about those deaths. But they must have known their decision to dramatically scale back a search-and-rescue mission, cutting its funding by one-third, would necessarily result in huge loss of life.

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In fact, they were warned. Amnesty International said: "history will judge this decision as unforgiveable" and, in case there was any confusion, "many lives will be lost in the Mediterranean Sea unless EU member states step up to ensure a fully fledged, joint search and rescue operation".

But they didn't. They said it was essential that rescue missions were downsized so that migrants would be discouraged from coming to Europe. A statement from the British Home Office, defending the UK's decision to end its support for the rescue mission, perversely said it was resulting in even more deaths - that more people were willing to risk their lives because they knew there was a greater chance of being saved.

"Ministers across Europe have expressed concerns that search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean … (are) encouraging people to make dangerous crossings in the expectation of rescue. This has led to more deaths as traffickers have exploited the situation using boats that are unfit to make the crossing," it said.

Using this dubious logic as justification, Mare Nostrum, which rescued more than 140,000 people between October 2013 and 2014, was scrapped and replaced with Triton, run by EU border control agency Frontex. Saving lives was never the main objective. The press release issued after the operation was announced was clear: "While saving lives is an absolute priority in all maritime operations coordinated by Frontex, the focus of Triton will be primarily border management".

So, while Mare Nostrum operated in international waters with a budget of €9m a month, Triton was only active 30 miles off the Italian coast with a budget of just €3m a month. The results have been devastating. At least 1,500 people have died so far this year - 30 times higher than the same time period last year.

Apparently, despite the assurances of EU ministers, refugees fleeing conflict, starvation and political oppression don't stop and check on EU border control arrangements before piling into rickety ships in northern Africa and setting sail for Europe. Which is why the crocodile tears now coming from EU politicians are so nauseating. If they really wanted to prevent these deaths, they wouldn't have decimated the only operation tasked with stopping them.

The truth is, politicians in the EU don't want these migrants to reach our shores because, once they do, they have to assess their claims for refugee status. Consequently, it's much easier for them if they drown because, bluntly, they don't have to deal with them.

This political reality was given voice by professional troll Katie Hopkins last week when, as coastguards were plucking bodies from the sea, she described migrants as "cockroaches" spreading like a virus throughout the EU.

"No, I don't care. Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don't care," she wrote in 'The Sun.'

Hopkins' description of migrants as "a plague of feral humans" turning towns into "festering sores" is reminiscent of Nazi propaganda, but her rhetoric is the inevitable result of anti-immigrant hysteria, stoked by mainstream political parties that seek to blame "foreigners" for all of society's ills.

When you dehumanise people, strip them of any common humanity and see them entirely as some kind of economic blight to be eradicated, without any inherent worth, then it's easier to ignore their suffering. At least it was before they inconveniently started dying in numbers that the media could not ignore, causing a public relations nightmare for the EU and tarnishing its global image as somewhere where basic human rights are respected.

In Ireland, given our history of coffin ships and forced emigration, we should feel the plight of these desperate people more than most, but we have failed to opt into an EU Directive on minimum standards for reception conditions for refugee applicants or an updated EU Directive governing those who qualify for refugee status.

The logic in Ireland, that more refugees will come if we make their living conditions more tolerable, is the same reasoning that resulted in the stripping away of a safety net in the Mediterranean, so we have no moral high ground on which to perch.

It should be obvious, but the problem of migration cannot be solved by constructing a fortress around the EU, but by ensuring that conditions in the countries from which people are fleeing are improved. While the EU learns a lesson that has cost more than 1,500 lives, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel demands "answers", someone should remind her that the EU already has a mechanism in place to deal with a mass influx of refugees - the Temporary Protection Directive.

It provides for the temporary protection of displaced persons when the sheer number arriving threatens to overcome the asylum system and also provides for burden sharing across EU states. If you don't agree that Ireland should contribute, and help to alleviate this crisis, ask yourself this question.If you were faced with Isil on one side and the Mediterranean on the other, which option would you choose?

Irish Independent

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