Stopping a few from dying in flight to Europe is not enough
Published 04/07/2015 | 02:30
Every day an Irish naval vessel named LÉ Eithne ploughs the waters off Libya in search of migrants crammed onto rickety boats as they make a desperate bid to get to Europe. Since the LÉ Eithne departed from Cork harbour in mid-May, it has rescued almost 3,000 people from an almost certain watery grave.
So far this year, 1,867 migrants have perished as they tried to cross the Mediterranean - 1,308 of them in April alone. This is the first time that an Irish Navy ship has been deployed in an overseas humanitarian search and rescue operation. It is an historic mission at a crucial time for Europe.
According to UN figures released this week, a record 137,000 people made the perilous journey by sea to Europe in the first half of this year, most of them not economic migrants but refugees fleeing war and persecution.
That compares with the 75,000 during the same period in 2014. "Europe is living through a maritime refugee crisis of historic proportions," the UN's refugee agency warned. Those numbers are expected to increase during the summer as people smugglers take advantage of the more favourable weather conditions.
The crisis is weighing heavily on minds in Brussels. The EU recently approved a naval operation to try to stem the flow of boats coming from Libya, which is the main gateway. This operation will be restricted for now to intelligence gathering because it has no authorisation from the UN.
People smugglers have long taken advantage of Libya's porous borders to work the lucrative transit routes to Europe.
Migrants usually pay the equivalent of €720 to €900 for passage into Libya and often double that for the perilous onward journey to Europe. According to a recent UN report, the business of people smuggling through Libya was worth €153m last year for sea crossings alone. In several parts of Libya, particularly along its lawless southern belt, trafficking networks have become entwined with the patchwork of militias that emerged during and after the 2011 uprising that ousted Muammar Gaddafi.
Before 2011, the number of immigrants in Libya was estimated to range from 1.5 to 2.5 million - many of whom ended up staying to work in a country dependent on migrant labour. No reliable data has been gathered since but chaotic Libya is no longer such an appealing place to seek employment and most migrants are keen to depart for Europe as soon as they can.
Libyan officials estimate there are more than 500,000 awaiting transit at any one time.
Libya's unravelling - since last summer the country has been divided between two rival governments, each backed by a myriad of warring factions - has benefited the traffickers who are exploiting the migrants' desperation to leave by charging even higher sums than before. The emergence of Islamic State (IS) affiliates in Libya presents yet another danger: In April, they released a video purporting to show the killing of a group of Ethiopian migrants, ostensibly because they were Christians.
Gaddafi exploited European anxieties over illegal migration, often using the issue to pressure Brussels. Libya's new rulers have used similar ploys. Last year the interior minister warned that they could "facilitate" the flow of migrants to Europe if the EU did not help it tackle the challenge. Officials from the self-declared administration currently in place in Tripoli, which is physically closer to the main migrant transit towns on the coast than the internationally recognised government based in eastern Libya, have used similar arguments in their bid to get recognition.
Colonel Rida Issa, commander of the Libyan Coastal Guard in western Libya, knows his forces have a crucial role to play but, he says, they are pitifully under-equipped.
He says he has over 1,000 men but only a handful of ageing vessels to patrol Libya's long coastline. "We work in very difficult conditions with the most basic tools," he told me. "We need boats, we need proper communications equipment, we need full cooperation from Europe. We cannot do this alone."
Libya is just one part of the puzzle. The world is experiencing an unprecedented level of human displacement. Last year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said 51.2 million people had been uprooted from their homes - six million more than the year before.
Last month, the refugee agency said the number had risen to 59.5 million in 2014. Given the conflicts raging to Europe's south and east - particularly in Syria, Iraq and Libya - the exodus across the Mediterranean is not going to slow any time soon.
While search and rescue operations like those conducted by the LÉ Eithne can help prevent hundreds dying en route to Europe, the wider challenge is how to tackle the problem at its roots.
With multiple wars driving most of the desperate to chance their luck on a flimsy boat to Europe, there are no easy answers to one of the most pressing issues of our time.