Wednesday 23 August 2017

Mediterranean has become a Rio Grande of broken migrant dreams

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

Colin Freeman

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.

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.

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