Cemetery of the Mediterranean

"I don't know how many more people need to die at sea before something gets done … we are building a cemetery within our Mediterranean Sea."

“I don’t know how many more people need to die at sea before something gets done,” said Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat. “As things stand we are building a cemetery within our Mediterranean Sea.”

He was talking about the part of the Mediterranean between the North African coast and the two islands that are the closest bits of the European Union: the Italian island of Lampedusa and his own country, Malta. In the past two weeks, almost as many migrants have died in that narrow stretch of water – only 120 km. (80 miles) separate the Tunisian coast from Lampedusa – as died along the US-Mexican border in all of last year.

On the southern US border they mostly die of thirst in the desert; in the Mediterranean they drown. The migrants pay the people smugglers in Libya or Tunisia thousands of dollars each to make the crossing in small, unseaworthy, grossly overcrowded boats, but the smugglers don’t go with them. They don’t want to get arrested at the end of the journey. They just hand over the keys to the migrants.

The refugees – more than half of the 32,000 who have reached Italy so far this year come from Syria, Somalia or Eritrea – have no experience at sea. The boats leak, they run out of fuel, they catch fire, and nobody knows what to do about it. In many cases, the boats just capsize when everybody rushes to the same side to call for help from a passing ship or aircraft.

Then they are in the water, and of course there are no life-jackets. Last week, when 359 Somali and Eritrean migrants drowned in a single boat, nobody even had a satellite phone to summon help. Most of the migrants can’t swim, and even those who can often drown before help arrives. Every sinking brings stories of parents who could swim, but had to choose which children to save.

“For us it’s intolerable that the Mediterranean is a sea of the dead,” said Prime Minister Enrico Letta of Italy on Monday, announcing that his country is tripling its air and naval presence in the death zone. But as Interior Minister Angelino Alfano warned, “It’s not a given that the intervention of an Italian ship will mean that migrants are taken to an Italian port.”

They don’t want the migrants to die, but they don’t want them to stay in Italy either. As in other European Union countries that are getting a lot of asylum-seekers, the flood of migrants from Africa and the Middle East is fuelling a powerful anti-immigrant backlash.

The numbers are not really all that huge. Frontex, the EU agency that deals with refugees, recorded only 272,208 asylum-seekers last year. That’s the biggest number since 2005, but it’s only a drop in the bucket among the EU’s 400 million people.

The problem is that they almost all head for a few relatively rich countries in western Europe – Britain, France, Germany and the Low Countries – or else end up stranded in Greece, Italy or Spain, the countries closest to where the refugees sail from. And for Italy, in particular, the problem has got a lot worse recently.

A joint EU police force managed to close off the previously favoured route for Middle Eastern refugees, the Greek-Turkish border, in 2010, but that just redirected the migrants to sea routes across the Mediterranean. The recent revolutions in Libya and Tunisia have crippled the ability of those countries to control their own coasts. And the wars in Syria and Somalia are generating ever larger numbers of desperate asylum-seekers.

The Italians do let most of the migrants stay – although Germany accused Italy last May of encouraging the refugees to move on by giving them 500 euros ($680) and a “Schengen” visa that allows them to travel to most other EU countries without passport checks. But the brutal truth is this: the safer the EU countries make the Mediterranean crossing, the more people will try to come.

Most of the migrants currently risking their lives in those little boats are genuine refugees, but behind them, in the vast sweep of countries from West Africa to Somalia and Iraq, there are several hundred million others who would leap at the chance of moving to Europe. The nationalists in those countries will indignantly deny that, but you only have to talk to ordinary people there to know that it is true.

Europeans, like most people, want to see themselves as generous and caring, but behind all the humanitarian talk there is the stark reality that the EU will never make it so easy and safe to get in that even a small fraction of that vast reservoir of would-be migrants actually tries to make the journey. European leaders who let that happen would be committing political suicide.

The least bad solution would be to encourage the emergence of stable governments in Tunisia and Libya that could stop the boats from leaving their shores, but that will not happen any time soon. In the meantime, people will go on drowning in the Mediterranean, although hopefully in smaller numbers than the catastrophe of the last few weeks.

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