As politicians in Europe wring their hands about the migrant crisis on the southern shores of Europe, it is time to actually do something about it – even if there is no easy solution
It was the leader of one of the smallest countries in Europe who spoke with the loudest voice.
As up to 950 migrants were reported to have perished in the Mediterranean, Joseph Muscat, the prime minister of Malta, rounded on his fellow European leaders.
“A time will come when Europe will be judged harshly for its inaction, as it was judged when it had turned a blind eye to genocide,” he said.
His words appeared to resonate. Across Europe – from Spain, France, the UK, Germany and Italy – politicians demanded action. Traffickers must be stopped, they said. Libya’s borders must be secured. Countries must be encouraged to become more democratic, to make fleeing a less palatable prospect.
The waves of wretched people washing onto the shores of southern Europe cannot be easily calmed. The four-year civil war in Syria has pushed almost four million people from their homes. Withdrawal of Western forces from Afghanistan has left the country shaky, with many despairing of ever being able to live and work in peace. Somalia’s al-Shabaab terrorists continue to wreak havoc. The political collapse of Libya has left vast lawless swathes of the country, where people traffickers can operate with impunity and dispatch daily flotillas of the desperate.
Survivors said the passengers came from across the globe – from Algeria, Egypt, Somalia, Nigeria, Senegal, Mali, Zambia, Bangladesh and Ghana. That they came from some of the more stable, safe and prosperous nations of Africa – like Ghana, Zambia, Senegal – showed the level of lies sold to them by people traffickers.
In Calais – the magnet for most who cross the Mediterranean – the majority of people seem to be from Eritrea. President Isaias Afewerki has turned the country into one of the most repressive in Africa, with what is in practice unlimited compulsory military service, and from where people are literally dying to escape.
Matteo Renzi, the Italian leader, said boats should be prevented from setting sail from Libya – quite how he intends to stop them, he didn’t say. A £30 million EU border training mission, begun in 2013, now lies in tatters.
Targeting the traffickers would help, and a new initiative to break up the gangs was launched in The Hague last month. But with lawless territory across great swathes of the Sahara, it will be an exceptionally tough nut to crack.
The European Union said on Sunday that it will hold an urgent meeting of foreign and interior ministers this week, to seek an EU-wide solution.
Proposals should encompass immediate assistance for countries hosting the thousands of migrants. It is unfair to leave it to southern European nations to bear the brunt of the arrivals – especially when migrants are invariably drawn to the wealthier regions of northern Europe.
Reinstating a comprehensive search and rescue operation would not solve the problem, but it would at least reduce the number of fatalities.
The pressure must also be increased on countries such as Eritrea to improve their human rights records, and not accept what a French diplomat termed “nonsensical drivel” in their vague promises of reform in return for aid. At the end of this month a meeting will be held in Cairo to follow up on the Khartoum Process to stop people trafficking: now is the moment to exert pressure on repressive regimes in the Horn of Africa.
On Sunday, we heard the words. Now we need to see the action – or Europe will indeed be judged harshly.