Monday 26 September 2016

Mediterranean has become a Rio Grande of broken migrant dreams

Colin Freeman

Published 22/04/2015 | 02:30

Survivors of the smuggler's boat that overturned off the coasts of Libya lie on the deck of the Italian Coast Guard ship Bruno Gregoretti, in Valletta's Grand Harbour. Photo: AP
Survivors of the smuggler's boat that overturned off the coasts of Libya lie on the deck of the Italian Coast Guard ship Bruno Gregoretti, in Valletta's Grand Harbour. Photo: AP
Mohammed Ali Malek (C, rear), one of two survivors of Saturday's migrant boat disaster, later arrested on suspicion of people trafficking, is seen watching bodies of dead migrants being disembarked from the Italian coastguard ship Bruno Gregoretti, at Senglea in Valletta's Grand Harbour. Photo: Reuters
Mohammed Ali Malek (L) and Mahmud Bikhit (C), two survivors of Saturday's migrant boat disaster, arrested on suspicion of people trafficking, are seen as they arrive by Italian coastguard ship Bruno Gregoretti in Catania's harbour. Photo: Reuters

Europe now has its own Rio Grande. The Mediterranean is much wider than the river that skirts Texas's border with Mexico, but it too has become a conduit between the world's poorer quarters and its richer ones. Just as thousands of Latinos risk their lives each year traversing fast-flowing waters to make it to America, so vast numbers of Africans now cram into people-trafficking boats bound from Libya to Lampedusa, the tiny Italian island that is the nearest speck of European turf. There, however, the comparison ends.

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For today the Mexican-American flow is at a 40-year low. On the Med, meanwhile, some 10,000 migrants have arrived in Italy from Libya in the past fortnight alone - with more than 1,000 dead in two sinkings. The predictions are that half a million more could arrive in the coming year. Small wonder, then, that European foreign ministers met to discuss the crisis, which threatens to become the West's biggest maritime challenge since the Somali piracy epidemic. Indeed, there are direct parallels between the two. Once again, the collapse of a nation state has allowed ruthless criminal enterprise to flourish. Once again, there are desperate, poverty-stricken people for whom even the most perilous gamble on the high seas is better than the status quo. And once again, there is the debate over what is the humane response. Because for every voice that describes both pirates and people traffickers as modern-day slavers, causing untold misery in their pursuit of profits, there are those who say they are simply the products of the wider malaise of global inequality, and that the fault lies mainly with the West. That, certainly, seems to be the view of many aid agencies, not least the United Nations, whose various representatives have been vocal on this subject in recent days. Seldom do they denounce the traffickers with as much enthusiasm as they denounce EU states for cutting back on search-and rescue services, or for failing to have more generous asylum and immigration policies.

For a publicly-funded organisation that is supposed to have impartiality as its lifeblood, the UN shows remarkably little acknowledgement for the other side of the debate, namely the social impact of what many Europeans see as uncontrolled and illegal immigration. Rather like certain UN mouthpieces in Palestine who make little effort to hide their anti-Israeli feelings, there is an almost wilful disregard for the political complexities on the ground, as if the rise of anti-immigrant parties across Europe in recent years had never happened.

Then again, as far as the UN is concerned, the current crisis is not a question of "illegal immigration" at all. During a trip two years ago to report on how people trafficking had affected Malta, I came across a pamphlet from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, which advised me to use the term "irregular migration" instead. The idea being that it's rather more "neutral". I could see the point they were trying to make. But it didn't really take account of the feelings of many Maltese, whose tiny island was already struggling with the number of arrivals, and who didn't feel very "neutral" about it at all. With this kind of disconnect between governments accountable to voters and UN bodies accountable to no one in particular, it's perhaps not surprising that the trafficking problem has reached such a pretty pass. It has, after all, been happening for decades, although ironically, the one person who probably did more than anything to stop it was the late Colonel Ghadaffi, who was persuaded to introduce tougher border controls around Libya's coastline as part of his political rehabilitation a decade ago. True, he also used it as a form of extortion, threatening to "turn Europe black" if the EU didn't pay him exorbitant sums in border aid. Yet while his language would no doubt have offended the UN, he was broadly as good as his word. After his fall, the EU's Frontex agency busily began building up proper new border control forces in Libya. But since the fledgling post-Ghaddafi government dissolved into armed factionalism in 2013, that has been on hold.

All the more reason, then, for Europe now to push Libya's different sides back to the negotiating table. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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