Militarising Europe’s Migrant Crisis

Military efforts to repel migrants will lead to confusion and human rights infringements

Watching the response of European governments and politicians to last week’s horrific events in the Mediterranean has not been an edifying spectacle. We have seen a lot of solemn faces and a great deal of handwringing but nowhere, absolutely nowhere, has there been any official recognition that there might be a connection between the deaths of over 900 migrants last week and the fact that the EU wound down its search-and-rescue operation last year — despite clear evidence that the numbers of migrants crossing the Mediterranean had been rising and would almost certainly continue to rise.

No one knows how many of the men, women and children who drowned last week might have been saved had Europe deployed ships, planes and helicopters on the same or even on a greater scale than the Italian Mare Nostrum operation last year, but the facts are nevertheless simple, shocking and impossible to ignore for anyone who wants to look: that European governments reduced their ability to prevent such drownings even though they knew that this decision would almost certainly occur, and they did so because they believed that rescuing people would encourage others to come.

There is of course another unspoken reason why European governments are not keen on search-and-rescue. Many, if not most of the migrants crossing the Mediterranean are fleeing war and persecution and would therefore be eligible to claim asylum from the moment they are taken on board a European ship. That is something that Europe doesn’t want at all.

© Hedinn Halldorsson/Save the Children
© Hedinn Halldorsson/Save the Children

So in effect, without actually saying it outright, Europe accepted the possibility that such deaths might occur as a form of ‘collateral damage’ in its border enforcement operations in the Mediterranean that are overwhelmingly dedicated towards stopping people from reaching Europe, regardless of their reasons for wanting to be here.

That is pretty despicable and somewhat disturbing when you think about it, and so the eurocrats and foreign ministers and heads of state have preferred not to think about it all, and would clearly prefer it if no one else thought about it either

Instead they would like us to think about smugglers, and how evil, ruthless and cynical they are. The horrendously unsafe journeys that migrants are forced to make, and the grim stories of their treatment before and after boarding, certainly bear out these condemnations, but it has been pointed out many times that smugglers fulfil a demand that would not exist if migrants were able to travel legally, and therefore safely.

Targeted visa restrictions, immigration liaison officers stationed in airports across the world and a host of other measures make it impossible for migrants to get on a plane, and so they will gamble everything on running the gauntlet that Europe has erected far beyond its borders, and pay extortionate sums to get on the boats that might or might not kill them.

It doesn’t take a genius to work this out, yet too many of Europe’s politicians — and large sections of the European public — have no interest in recognizing this, and prefer to depict migration as consequence of organized crime. And now, faced with the latest barrage of ‘Europe’s shame’ headlines, Europe is threatening to escalate its anti-smuggler rhetoric beyond law enforcement to something that looks a lot like actual war.

On Monday the emergency meeting of EU foreign ministers pledged to take ‘civil-military action’ against smugglers. According to the European Commission, such action is likely to consist of  ‘a systematic effort to capture and destroy vessels used by the smugglers,’ while Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has also announced that ‘Attacks against the gangs of death, attacks against people smugglers are among the considerations.’

The gung-ho Liberal Democrat peer and ex-Royal Marine Paddy Ashdown has suggested that ‘Special Forces of interdiction’ should be used to ‘destroy the boats before they leave port’.

The European Commission has suggested that these operations might be based on the UN’s Atalanta Operation, which was directed against Somali pirates, and included raids on the Somalia mainland to destroy pirate boats.  British naval commander Graham Edmonds has raised the prospect of a joint European–US naval blockade of the Mediterranean, declaring ‘There is a duty to help people in distress. It is international law. You cannot let people drown. You could enforce a blockade and stop these boats from coming.’

This talk of militarisation and war is not good news, for various reasons. For one thing it marginalizes the issue of refugee protection. A naval blockade might seem close to the ‘humanitarian corridor’ that UNHCR once urged NATO to put in place in the Mediterranean to get refugees out of war-torn Libya, but given the EU’s priorities, it is more likely to be used to turn them back.

What would happen to the passengers of smuggler boats captured at sea and interdicted by this blockade?  Presumably they would be rescued, but would they then be allowed to claim asylum or would they be sent back to their port of embarkation, thereby violating Europe’s obligations under the Geneva Convention?

If European warships placed their blockade at the maritime ‘border’ along European territorial waters and turned these boats back, it would not be able to capture them, and we would we presented with the spectacle of the naval might of Europe being used to stop people from claiming asylum.

One way round these difficulties would be attack smuggler ships on land.  It might be cool, for those who like such things, to imagine ‘go in quick and get out quick’ Special Forces raids on Libyan ports leaving a trail of smoking boats behind them, but separating ‘bad’ smuggler boats from ‘good’ fishermen’s boats or merchant ships is not easy.

People would die in these raids, and not only ‘evil’ smugglers. ‘Good’ as well as ‘bad’ livelihoods would be destroyed, and Libya would become even more destabilised and dysfunctional than it already is — largely as a result of the last time European governments leapt almost playfully into ‘civil-military action’ there.

One way round this problem would be to destroy every boat and ship in Libya, but this would be rather tricky on legal and moral grounds, and even if it was achieved smugglers would find new routes as long as the demand exists. Another solution might be to kidnap smugglers and fly them off to secret or semi-secret prisons, something that some of our governments have done in other circumstances, with less than sterling results. Or perhaps to carry out targeted assassinations of selected members of the ‘gangs of death’.

If these measures sound grotesque and absurd, they are no less so than the EU’s pathetic willingness to militarize what is essentially a humanitarian crisis, and transform law enforcement issues around human smuggling into war and quasi-war.

This is not just a massive failure of imagination, though it is that.  It isn’t just a simplistic willingness to reduce the enormous complexities of international migration — much of which is generated by wars that Europe has fought or helped bring about — though it is that too. Ultimately the low-intensity ‘war’ that Europe is proposing to wage against smugglers is not directed at smugglers at all. It’s aimed at the people they bring to Europe, who European governments have decided to treat as if they were just another form of contraband.

They are the enemy that Europe’s ‘civil-military action’ is seeking to turn back, even as its governments weep crocodile tears for the deaths that have already taken place and proclaim their willingness to stop others from occurring.

Matthew Carr is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Observer, The Guardian, The New York Times and on BBC Radio. He is the author of The Infernal Machine: An Alternative History of Terrorism; Blood and Faith: The Purging of Muslim Spain, 1492-1614 and Fortress Europe: Dispatches From a Gated Continent 

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