The rapidly increasing death toll of migrants attempting the crossing into Southern Europe is a catastrophe that should spur us into action over so called "anti-immigration" rhetoric. The UNHCR estimates 1,600 deaths so far this year and without action, thousands more will die. European government leaders are due to hold a too-little-too-late crisis summit on Thursday. We should take this opportunity to point out that the deaths can be attributed to their politically motivated inaction so far, based on anti-immigration rhetoric. We must demand an end to the cruel policy of favouring border control and surveillance over search and rescue.
Last October, Italy announced the end of its year-long naval search and rescue operation Mare Nostrum ("Our Sea" – a Roman name for the Mediterranean Sea revived by 19th Century Italian nationalists). The mission had rescued 150,000 migrants making the crossing mainly via Libya. Many human rights groups warned at the time that paring back the operation would only lead to an increase in the already startling number of deaths. In 2014, 3,500 people died trying to enter Europe via the Mediterranean. At 1,600, this year's toll is already well on its way to exceeding last years.
When announcing the end of Mare Nostrum, Italy called for other European nations to step up their contribution to efforts in the region. The response was Triton, an operation much smaller than its predecessor and focused on border surveillance as opposed to search and rescue. A deliberate policy of maintaining border controls for Fortress Europe then, not a humanitarian effort concerned for the safety of those making the extremely dangerous crossing. In hindsight, the decision was cruel and disastrous, but in the scramble for some European leaders to lament the tragedy of the recent (entirely predictable) deaths, it is hard to see any change in the broader hostile narrative toward those risking their lives for the promise of a better future.
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The British government's response in 2014 was to resist at every turn the possibility of aiding in search and rescue operations. Foreign Office minister Baroness Anelay described such efforts as an "unintended 'pull factor', encouraging more migrants to make the dangerous sea crossing". The government's position, according to Anelay, was an unequivocal – "We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean". Theresa May supported Operation Triton on the basis that it would "reinforce border surveillance in the waters close to the Italian shores". This was followed up by the Home Office seconding at first a single immigration officer, now increased to five, in order to aid with gathering intelligence on those making the crossing.
David Cameron is now calling for a "comprehensive" approach ahead of Thursday's meeting of EU leaders. Thus far this seems to be yet another down playing of the urgent need for search and rescue operations, with Cameron instead putting his emphasis on dealing with "instability in the countries concerned" and by doing this "trying to stop people from travelling". Not only does this ignore the very recent history of Cameron's own contribution to creating that instability – say through the intervention in Libya – it more urgently ignores those continuing to drown.
Britain then, alongside its European counterparts who have also, to put it mildly, done less than their best, has contributed to the killing of these migrants. They have not simply died – they have been killed by the duel factors of immiseration that caused them to flee and a Europe so averse to them settling here for a new life that it would cynically ignore people drowning off its own coasts.
It is difficult not to put such an unforgiveable approach down to a generalised and pernicious disdain against migrants. Here in the UK it is bad enough when free movement within the EU means that eastern European people might choose to live here. The prospect of a mass influx of refugees and asylum seekers from the global south is practically unconscionable. The three main political parties (and of course UKIP) all promise tighter immigration controls if they are elected. Our long history of immigration acts dating back to the 1960s is a history of self-serving policy, dictated by economic pulls and perceived, as well as often manipulated, public opinion. The very same attitude is at play today also – until it was too late, British politicians were satisfied with their stance against immigrants. Now that the deadly consequences have been borne out, we see further trepidation lest we inadvertently encourage further attempts at migration into Europe.
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Though perhaps we should, it is hard to ignore the comments of Sun columnist Katie Hopkins. The headline emblazoned "Rescue boats? I'd use gunships to stop migrants", as well as the further horrific comments are, on the face of it, unbelievable. It would be easy to pretend that these views have little public traction, but as a first generation Somali asylum seeker in this country, I feel like they do. The attitude towards asylum seekers can be hideous – there is no other word for it. Hopkins-esque views may be far from the lips of our political leaders, but at the end of the day aren't the consequences of their two approaches remarkably similar?
This is an opportunity for many of us to give the lie to this bigotry masquerading as right-thinking policy. Rescue operations restarting at the very least on the scale of Mare Nostrum is a must. This is what politicians should be pushed towards ahead of their summit. But they must also be pushed towards providing asylum for these people rather than shipping them back to Africa. Being "tough" on immigration has deadly consequences. This bloody protectionism should have no place in our society. Rather than being quick to moralise about "people smugglers" (who are no doubt exploitative) we should concentrate on seeing that what they are smuggling is people, not goods that can be lost at sea. To borrow from a recent struggle: #BlackMigrantLivesMatter.
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