Dying on the doorstep of Fortress Europe

April 23, 2015

The nightmare endured by migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean is the horrific consequence of war, austerity and draconian immigration policies.

THE DROWNING deaths of hundreds of migrants fleeing Libya for Italy's southern coast shocked people around the globe--and prompted calls for political leaders to take action to lessen the desperation and suffering of those who seek to come to Europe each year.

The human tragedy of this latest disaster in the Mediterranean Sea is awful to contemplate: Hundreds of migrants packed tightly into a rickety vessel were unable to escape when the boat capsized. But while European Union (EU) leaders express sadness and dismay at the number of deaths, their own policies led directly to the loss of these lives--and thousands more just like them.

The deaths of the migrants seeking a better life in Europe, like those who die every year trying to cross the southern border into the U.S., are a manmade disaster--and the blame lies squarely with political leaders whose policies destabilize poorer parts of the world, far from their home countries, and who then refuse to allow a safe haven to those desperate to flee.

Victims of a capsized migrant boat in the Mediterranean Sea
Victims of a capsized migrant boat in the Mediterranean Sea

JUST 28 people out of an estimated 850 were rescued alive after a ship filled with migrants capsized on the Mediterranean Sea on April 18. It was the second massive loss of lives on the Mediterranean in the span of several days--on April 15, an estimated 400 migrants drowned and 150 were rescued after their ship, also departing from the North African country of Libya for Europe, capsized.

These dangerous attempts to travel to Europe are nothing new, but they have escalated dramatically in recent years after U.S. and NATO bombing campaigns and various regional conflicts, often instigated by the West, have driven larger numbers make a desperate voyage toward Europe.

As a result, the death toll has risen exponentially: So far this year, more than 1,500 people have lost their lives--10 times the number that died over the same period last year.

In the April 18 disaster, some 1,000 migrants, mostly African men, had lined up on a Libyan beach, hoping to board the ship that would take them into Europe. Smugglers packed the travelers into the hull of the vessel and told them to sit on one another's laps to pack it as tightly as possible.

At some point, the overcrowded ship was reported to the Italian Coast Guard while it crossed the Mediterranean Sea in the direction of the Italian island of Lampedusa. The Coast Guard alerted a Portuguese freighter and requested it help the migrant boat. Whether because of panic or incompetence, the migrant vessel hit the approaching Portuguese ship, and hundreds of the passengers apparently crowded to one side of the vessel, causing it to capsize. Almost everyone on board drowned.

Medic Enrico Vitriello, who participated in the rescue mission, told NPR that survivors "told us there were women and children, but they were kept in the hold below, so they didn't have time to come up when the boat capsized. I'll never forget what I saw, all those bodies in the water. It was a floating cemetery."

WHILE THE magnitude of the loss of life grabbed worldwide attention, this is just the latest in a long history of migrant deaths at sea, as desperate people flee Northern Africa and the Middle East, hoping to reach Europe.

In all, 3,200 migrants died last year while crossing the Mediterranean, headed toward Europe--and more than 22,000 have died since 2000, according to the International Organization for Migration.

This month's horrors have renewed calls for action to be taken to save migrant lives.

Up until this point, Italy has mainly--and only very grudgingly--shouldered much of the burden of rescuing migrants at risk in the Mediterranean. In 2013, when more than 300 migrants died near the island of Lampedusa, Italy began a large-scale rescue program called the Mare Nostrum, with 32 ships, and helicopter and plane support. The program was a success, saving an estimated 150,000 lives in 2013 alone.

But the Italian government has long been hostile to asylum seekers, who are a favorite target of right-wing politicians like former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and the far-right Northern League--despite the fact that African migrants in particular make up the bulk of agricultural workers in Italy's southern region.

The rest of Europe is no more welcoming, with countries like Britain severely limiting the number of asylum seekers it accepts each year.

Late last year, citing the Mare Nostrum's roughly $12 million-a-month cost, the Italian government slowed and then halted the program. The replacement, dubbed "Operation Triton," was a multinational force helmed by Frontex, the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders. As left-wing author Cinzia Arruzza wrote:

In spite of the European institutions' and mainstream media's efforts to present Frontex as an agency that has as one of the main goals the rescue of migrants who try to cross European borders in dangerous circumstances, as a matter of fact, Frontex is nothing but the military longa manus of the European Union for patrolling borders, managing camps outside EU borders, and, to put it simply, keeping migrants away from Europe or regulating migration flows according to the interests of European labor markets.

Operation Triton is funded at less than one-third the level of the Mare Nostrum, and its impact is very limited. Under the Mare Nostrum, for example, search-and-rescue missions were performed all the way to the Libyan coast, but under Triton, ships only patrol within 30 nautical miles of the Italian coast.

In fact, search-and-rescue operations have been largely replaced under Triton with measures designed to prevent crossing the Mediterranean in the first place. In other words, the goal has become not to save those in distress, but to dissuade them from leaving in the first place.

When the Mare Nostrum was shut down, human rights campaigners predicted the inevitable outcome--a "surge of deaths at sea," as Riccardo Noury, an Italian spokesman for Amnesty International, stated last year. They were right.

TODAY, ACCORDING to Yves Pascouau, director of migration policy at the European Policy Center in Brussels, "The EU has been struggling to respond to the crisis because governments think it is too expensive." He added, however, that this is happening at a time when "the debate on immigration has become toxic because of the rise of the far right."

In fact, in Britain, politicians like Nigel Farage of the right-wing UK Independence Party are using this latest crisis as a political wedge to argue that Britain should leave the EU--even though the blame lies with escalating anti-immigrant policies that force people to attempt dangerous journeys because they have less and less chance of emigrating legally.

The common drive toward austerity among European political leaders--whether from the hard-line right or the center-left parties like France's Socialist Party--has led to anti-immigrant sentiment being used to deflect blame for cuts to social services that hit the working class and poor the hardest.

The response of mainstream politicians exposes a stomach-turning callousness to the desperation of migrants who are driven to risk their lives.

In the U.S., the bipartisan consensus in favor of increased border militarization has had the effect of driving migrants to cross into U.S. in more dangerous and remote terrain. Likewise, EU political leaders have performed a deadly calculus and determined that policies which cost more migrant lives are politically popular, and so the growing death toll is acceptable.

As Britain's Foreign Office minister Baroness Anelay sniffed last year: "We do not support planned search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean. We believe that they create an unintended 'pull factor,' encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths."

THE ADDED cruelty of such comments is that Western policies are very often responsible for destabilizing the home countries of the migrants, leading them to flee in the first place. As playwright Anders Lustgarten wrote in Britain's Guardian:

In all the rage about migration, one thing is never discussed: what we do to cause it. A report published this week by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists reveals that the World Bank displaced a staggering 3.4 million people in the last five years. By funding privatizations, land grabs and dams, by backing companies and governments accused of rape, murder and torture, and by putting $50 billion into projects graded highest risk for "irreversible and unprecedented" social impacts, the World Bank has massively contributed to the flow of impoverished people across the globe.

The single biggest thing we could do to stop migration is to abolish the development mafia: the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, European Investment Bank and European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

A very close second is to stop bombing the Middle East. The West destroyed the infrastructure of Libya without any clue as to what would replace it. What has is a vacuum state run by warlords that is now the center of Mediterranean people-smuggling. We're right behind the Sisi regime in Egypt that is eradicating the Arab Spring, cracking down on Muslims and privatizing infrastructure at a rate of knots, all of which pushes huge numbers of people on to the boats.

Lustgarten was talking about people like Emad al-Masaadi, a house painter and taxi driver originally from Damascus in Syria. He explained to NPR that he had made the crossing with his son after their home was bombed in 2012.

Masaadi and his son were lucky--they were rescued when the overcrowded boat they were traveling on began to sink off of the coast of Italy, and they were able to win asylum in Germany. But Masaadi says he receives regular calls from other Syrians asking to be put in contact with the smugglers he used.

"I tell them not to go, that if I had to take this journey again, I would not," he told NPR. "Yet they still call those smugglers. They know this route is deadly, but staying home is deadly, too. They keep saying, 'Well, you made it.' This is a sign of hope for them. That is how desperate they are."

In Libya, of course, the source of the current flood of migrants is the turmoil that followed a civil war that overthrew dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi--during which the U.S. and NATO carried out an air war against the regime of its sometime ally and tried to maneuver their preferred factions into power.

The country is still suffering from the devastation of U.S.-NATO air war, but there has been little aid from the West. In fact, with fighting escalating between different factions in the country, most international aid agencies have been forced to suspend work and pull out personnel--leaving a humanitarian crisis behind.

FOLLOWING THIS month's horrors, EU governments announced they would be taking action--not by lifting immigration controls or restoring funds for search-and-rescue operations on a permanent basis, but primarily by targeting smugglers inside Libya with military operations and by expanding Frontex.

Essentially, EU leaders are passing the buck. None are willing to commit to any measure that might help the people who are so desperate to flee to an uncertain life in Europe, or even to save their lives when they are in jeopardy.

The only real plan is to make the moat around Fortress Europe even bigger.

But military operations won't reduce the number of people attempting to flee to Europe--any more than hiring more Border Patrol agents or building a bigger border wall has had an impact in the U.S. In both cases, militarization only increases the likelihood of migrants facing deadly peril or greater exploitation.

Immigration controls are a travesty. They are imposed exclusively on people, while the bosses seek the freest possible flow of money and commodities. The valuable byproduct for political leaders is that they can lay the blame for economic problems and austerity on a powerless scapegoat. But immigrants are not the cause of the crisis. They are the victims of a system that sees some human beings as illegal.

The real answer to the migrant crisis won't come from the governments and institutions of the European Union because it isn't politically expedient for the business and political elite. It is up to working people across the continent, as in the U.S., to defend the rights of the most vulnerable as part of a united class resistance. As Kenan Malik wrote in a widely circulated New York Times op-ed article:

So what is to be done? The restoration of a proper search-and-rescue operation is important but insufficient. The European Union should stop treating migrants as criminals, and border control as warfare. It must dismantle Fortress Europe, liberalize immigration policy and open up legal routes for migrants. Some argue this would lead to a flood of immigrants, but current policy is not preventing people from migrating; it is simply killing them, by the boatload.

Fortress Europe has created not just a physical barrier around the Continent but an emotional barricade around Europe's sense of humanity, too. Until that changes, the Mediterranean will continue to be a migrants' graveyard. Come the next tragedy, we should remember: Our politicians could have helped prevent this, but chose not to.

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