Sinking Leadership in the Mediterranean

Written by Nicholas Barrett on . Posted in Current features, Features

Migrants arriving on the Island of Lampedusa

photograph by Sara Prestinanni

On Tuesday, the 14th of April approximately 400 migrants drowned off the southern coast of Italy when their rickety boat capsized. On Friday the 17th, when a rubber dingy carrying 100 Africans over to Europe began to sink, 12 Christians who refused to pray to Allah were thrown overboard to their deaths. 48 hours later, news broke that another 700 had drowned after another boat capsized. And on Monday the 20th April, as European ministers met for urgent crisis talks, reports emerged of 20 fatalities from a sinking boat holding over 300 more migrants. All this was just one week of the deadly ongoing struggle to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

It is hard to know precisely, of those who have drowned, and those who will inevitably soon join them, who or what each of them were fleeing. It is however, safe to assume that many who make the journey out of Africa are merely trying to find a way out of some of the poorest countries on earth. It is also fair to guess that many others will be seeking to escape the violence and repression in Eritrea, Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Yemen and Libya itself.

The crisis has been growing since Syria descended into civil war and Libya collapsed into a state of near anarchy. And yet, last year the Italian search and rescue operation, named Mare Nostrum, was drastically scaled back. “Clearly the morality is just not acceptable”, complains Professor Philippe Fargues, the founding Director of the Migration Policy Centre. “Last year we had Mare Nostrum” he laments in an interview with EUI Times, “the Italian Navy was going right up to the Libyian waters. It has been replaced by Triton, which is much cheaper. There is a paradox that instead of just Italy, Europe has combined on an operation that is much less efficient.” This lack of efficiency is partially intentional. In October, the British government blamed Mare Nostrum for an ‘unintended pull factor.’ This theory suggested that the best way to save migrants was for them to watch the bodies of their fellow refugees pile up on the beach. Fargues says such claims are impossible to verify, and it’s becoming increasingly clear that scaling back the operation has done nothing to deter people from fleeing the shores of Libya. “Europe,” he says, “has turned a search and rescue mission into border control.”

Professor Philippe Fargues

Professor Philippe Fargues

Last year Fargues co-wrote a paper exploring the issue, titled ‘When the best option is a leaky boat’ and is highly sympathetic to the migrant’s unenviable fortunes. “Life is just terrible before they cross” explains Fargues, “once they arrive many of them will not stay in Italy because they won’t have a prospect for earning an income, and they might have relatives in France, the UK, Germany and Sweden.” He’s now arguing that we don’t have to simply sit back and await more bad news. So what can be done? “We need to increase the search and rescue efforts,” insists Fargues. “We have to spend more money but we also have to operate at an earlier stage. We have to open visa facilities for them in their countries of asylum and invent a more effective way of using our embassies.” He also believes in taking responsibility for overseas intervention, as opposed to just walking away. “Iraq was the starting point for this chain of events. I would say the West, in particular, the US, have responsibilities in world affairs. As great powers, it’s a mistake to close our eyes.” But as ever, the debate has focused on the symptoms instead of the causes of the disease and the prognosis is hardly helped by the hostile political landscape of Europe’s economically pressed societies. Last year, approximately 220,000 made the illegal journey (over 3,000 of them died at sea, the equivalent death toll of the 9/11 attacks) and Fargues feels that Europe, with a population of over 500 million, has the ability to absorb them, for now. “It’s a price for Europe” he concedes, “But the price would be bigger if the entire Middle East collapses. Imagine Iraq with no state, Syria with no state, Lebanon with no state, it would mean terrible insecurity for Europe. It is also in our interest to try and avoid a terrible destabilisation of this part of the world.” Tolerating the status quo could arguably be manageable, but it certainly isn’t sustainable. The idea Europe can engineer a friendlier frontier will leave many feeling sceptical.

It is clearly frustrating for Fargues to read about tragedy after tragedy while searching for elusive political allies in a continent that currently exhibits increasing levels of hostility to almost every form of immigration. Mainstream political parties have had to appease and accommodate a growing number of voters flirting with the likes of Front Nazional, UKIP and the Swedish Democrats. “I can`t see any political leader in Europe today with any kind of courage on this issue” remarks Fargues, adding “you also need a bit of political courage to explain to your citizens that we need to open the doors wider otherwise people will continue to die at sea.”

The ongoing tragedies of the Mediterranean should disturb anyone with any interest in the identity of Europe. But for Fargues and many others, the rusty boats are becoming the symbol of a crisis of confidence in a world of retail politics. If legislators are afraid of expressing the values of Europe, then both the politicians and the European Union will risk becoming meaningless in eyes of the public. Or as Fargues puts it – “If you’re a leader you have to explain things, otherwise you’re not a leader.”