For the second time in less than five years, European nations, backed by NATO are considering military intervention against Libya, this time to squash the illicit migrant passage across the Mediterranean. Having shattered the Libyan national political and social body through its 2011 NATO military intervention “for humanitarian” purposes, the European countries, once again, using a slightly different pretext, appear on the verge of performance, this time to counter the burgeoning flow of migrants from Libya’s shores across the Mediterranean to Europe. Having messed up royally in its Libyan policy once leaving the country essentially a shattered state, more and more, Europe appears to be building on its tradition of failure a second time. As in the past, this time, large portions of European public opinion are cheering them on.
The United Nations estimates that at least 60,000 people have tried to cross the Mediterranean to Europe illegally this year – 50% more than last year at this time. Of that number close to 2000 have died, mostly from drowning. Last year some 650,000 people sought political asylum in Europe; of those, in all more than 220,000 refugees were picked up trying to cross the Mediterranean. This year even more are expected. Speaking last month to a special meeting of the European Commission to address the humanitarian crisis, European Council President and Polish political figure, Donald Tusk noted, “Let me be clear, Europe did not cause this tragedy.” Actually, this statement leaves a good deal to be desired, to put it mildly. To the contrary Europe bears a great deal of responsibility both for having caused the crisis through its long term role in the economic strangulation of Africa and the Middle East and its failure – its complete failure – to offer any serious suggestions or proposals as to how to counter what amounts to a growing societal collapse in both regions.
Underlining the contrast between the recent outpouring of sympathy in France for the 12 victims of the “Charlie Hebbo” attacks with the several thousand African and Middle Eastern migrants recently drowning in the Mediterranean the Financial Times noted:
When 12 people were murdered by terrorists in the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris earlier this year, more than 2 million came out on to the streets of France to demonstrate in sympathy and protest. It seems unlikely that there will be a similar outpouring of public emotion in response to the deaths of hundreds of would-be migrants who drowned in the Mediterranean over the weekend as they attempted to cross into Europe.
Other than the fact that the number of migrant victims, this year alone is already in the thousands, not hundreds. This statement by FT columnist Gideon Rachman places European priorities, or lack there of, quite nicely.
Although it is fashionable to blame the crisis on refugees themselves, this humanitarian debacle is in large measure, a crisis of Europe’s own making. Any time the prospect of genuine economic development appeared on the Middle East/North Africa/African horizon Europe was there to try to snuff it out. Lumumba, Nasser, Sankara, the bombing of Iraq, Libya back to the stone age…the list goes on. Unwillling the help promote genuine economic development which would threaten their interests, and not having a clue as to how to address the continued flood of Africans and Middle Easterners crossing the Mediterranean, and following the U.S. example of militarizing its border with Mexico, the European Union is seriously considering “military action”. Yet cold heartlessness has company. Europe and the United States are not alone in pursuing increasingly hostile (and racist) militarized solutions to immigration. Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, has threatened to “stop the boats” of illegal migrants attempting to make to Australia’s shores. South Africa too has been condemned for its immigration policies to stem the attempts of millions of Africans from other countries entering. And now the migrant crisis is growing once again in the eastern Indian Ocean as well where refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh remain stranded at sea.
Embarrassed by their own heartless and increasingly racist response – cutting EU funding to Mediterranean naval monitoring, defunding and closing migrant centers in many countries, making land crossings into Europe through Turkey more difficult – the European Union is now toying with proposals that would “‘systematically identify, capture and destroy vessels used by smugglers,’ through EU Common Security and Defense (CSDP) operations.”
That boils down to a combined air strike and naval campaign in the Mediterranean and Libyan territorial waters although as a recent article in The Guardian of London notes “European plans for a military campaign to smash the migrant smuggling networks operating out of Libya include options for ground forces on Libyan territory.” This comes from a 19-page E.U. strategy paper which the media has access to but which is yet to appear in full in public. As printed in the same Guardian article, the 19-page position paper notes:
A presence ashore might be envisaged if agreement was reached with relevant authorities,” says the paper. “The operation would require a broad range of air, maritime and land capabilities. These could include: intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; boarding teams; patrol units (air and maritime); amphibious assets; destruction air, land and sea, including special forces units.
Of course, interfering with migrant flows from Libya in the medium and long run will do little to nothing to stop the migrations as for the migrants. Libya is just a jumping off point for travelers coming from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Somalia, Mali, Nigeria, Southern Sudan, and Cameroon. As has been repeatedly noted, as one route to Europe closes, the migrants find another route or die trying.
When all else fails, as is the case here, core countries, like those in Europe, increasingly turn to the military as if there is a military solution to what is essentially a socio-economic crisis. As early as a month ago in mid-April as the migrant crisis intensified with the drowning of more than 1,000 migrants over the course of a few days, Italian Foreign Minister, Paolo Gentiloni in the Corriere della Sera floated the idea of “targeted ant-terrorist strikes” into the Libyan coastal area as a way of both stemming the migrant flows and countering ISIS terrorism at the same time – a kind of killing two birds with one military stone. The indications are that the proposal is well along having been discussed not only in E.U circles but in NATO that will surely be involved in some manner as well as the U.N Security Council am attempt to garner, once again, international law in support of what can only be considered military intervention, in this case against non-state actors, the smugglers. That it is a cavalier and ineffective approach is something approaching a gross understatement as is the EU’s expressed concerned for sparing migrant lives if such an attack materializes.
True enough, military action is only a part of the program. There are also ideas to triple the European budget for funding of the so-called Operation Triton, the Mediterranean naval monitoring program which has saved lives at sea in the past, providing safer legal of avenues for migration and improved access to migrant protection, increasing the European resettlement numbers from the current paltry 20,000 number and providing more humanitarian, labor, and family reunification visas to asylum seekers and migrants. All of these suggestions, if implemented – an admittedly big question mark – would help ease the crisis which has been growing for decades. But it is possible that these suggestions are little more than a humanitarian cover for the military campaign that the E.U. appears eager to undertake (with NATO “encouragement” at least – it is very difficult to imagine such a campaign working without NATO “cooperation” on some fundamental level). In what was otherwise a generally supportive statement of the European proposals, the International Organization for Migration, (IOM), a United Nations agency dealing with migration cautioned, but gingerly, against military action. “IOM also supports the renewed focus on disrupting criminal smuggling networks, but has serious concerns about proposals to “systematically identify, capture and destroy vessels used by smugglers,” through EU Common Security and Defense (CSDP) operations.”
Last year, after the European Union failed to provide additional funding, Italy closed its maritime humanitarian search called Mare Nostrum claiming it lacked sufficient funding to maintain the program giving the unending flow of migrants across the Mediterranean. The year prior, 2014, Mare Nostrum actions had saved some 21,000 people. It was, at best, a weak safety net as more than 300,000 made the journey, but still it was something. The net removed, the migrant flood intensified during the first quarter of 2015, despite foul weather and stormy seas. The casualty rate has, predictably soared during this period.
Faced in most cases with stodgy growth and growing domestic opposition to immigration, shamefully, the European governments, to date, continue to do nothing, maintaining the hard line on immigration. That it is an ostrich-head-in-the-ground approach that will only intensify the crisis does not yet seem to have penetrated. Thus, it is likely that the migrants will continue to make their escape from their unlivable situations, with many more drowning or dying other ways along the way. A recently released Amnesty International report on the crisis notes that while 1 in 50 migrants to Europe died in 2014 that now that figure has more than doubled with 1 in 23 failing to survive it. An explosive, unsustainable situation all around.
In response to the crisis the Amnesty report asks what European nations will do to reduce the death rate? Certainly that is an appropriate short-term question that needs addressing. At the end of the report a number of recommendations are made, including:
• European governments should urgently launch a multi-country humanitarian operation mandated to save lives at sea in the Mediterranean, deploying naval and aerial resources at a scale commensurate with foreseeable departure trends and which should patrol the high seas along the main migration routes.
• Until this humanitarian operation is in place, European governments should provide Italy and Malta with financial and/or logistical support enabling them to step up their search and rescue capacity.
• The European Commission should support and call on European governments to launch a concerted humanitarian operation mandated to save lives at sea. The European Agenda on Migration, to be launched in May 2015 to ensure a ‘holistic approach’ to addressing migration to Europe, must include such a call and provide for safe and regular routes to Europe for refugees.
• To reduce the numbers of those taking the sea crossing, European governments should increase the number of resettlement places, humanitarian admissions and visas for people in need of international protection and ensure that refugees have effective access to asylum at land borders.
All of these recommendations would help reduce the humanitarian suffering – although unless implemented in an active and coordinated manner, they are unlikely to have much impact. Still, they would be a start. At the same time none of these suggestions even begins to get to the root of the migration “epidemic” – the collapse of viable states in the regions from whence come the migrants. Life has become increasingly unlivable in the countries involved. In some cases, like those of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Mali in the face of ongoing war, state structures have collapsed. There is no economy to speak of, and anarchy (or religious fanatics like ISIS, the Taliban or Boko Haram rule). Elsewhere it is repression, crushing poverty or a combination of such factors that create migration. Besides the periphery-to-core migration – of which the cross Mediterranean desperate attempts are the classic example – there is also considerable regional and even in-country migrations as people in huge numbers seek shelter from the next political crisis or natural disaster.
The fact of the matter is that sooner or later, the socio-economic crisis in the periphery of the global economy spills over into the core, the rich countries. Militarizing borders or seas in the end is not even a band-aid solution. At best even the more humane suggestions being put forth now only serve to dampen the migrant crisis – not to address it in all its fundamental aspects: the unequal exchange as Samir Amin labels it of the relations between Europe and the MENA countries, Africa, between North America and its Caribbean and Latin American neighbors, between the richer and poorer nations of Asia. Given current economic trends – misleading World Bank statistics that suggest “development” is growing – that the crisis will only intensify. So, with this in mind, let us watch as – cheered on by their populations, European powers bomb fishing boats off the coast of Tripoli “careful to minimize civilian casualties” (ha!), claim success after having achieved nothing. If they cannot make it to Europe by boat, they’ll find another root; the tensions from the migrant refugee flood will explode elsewhere. The crisis is too deep. It’s only just begun.
Here is a PDF of the European nations’ plans for military intervention into Libya: