Tuesday, 16 September 2014
Can Mediterranean's tragic migrant harvest be stemmed?
Scarcely a day passes in the Mediterranean's calm season without illegal migrants landing on Italy's shores, having trekked from far-flung African countries and, latterly, the Middle East, exacerbated by the political upheavals in that much vexed region. This human tide has now reached crisis levels on several fronts, including the tragic loss of life at sea and the implications throughout Europe for harmonious development and relations.
The latest migrant tragedy occurred on September 15th when more than 160 African illegal migrants bound for Italy perished when their overloaded vessel capsized off Libya's coast, but details are emerging of a far greater tragedy a few days earlier where the death toll could be 500. According to a few survivors the indications are that it was mass murder at the hands of traffickers who wanted to move some migrants to a smaller boat while at sea. Incensed by the migrants' refusal to comply, the traffickers deliberately rammed and sunk the overcrowded vessel.
One of the hundreds of migrants who drowned was a young Egyptian boy who had hoped to earn enough money in Europe to pay for his father's heart operation, said one Palestinian survivor, who watched the boy finally slip beneath the waves from a life buoy, overcome by exposure and hypothermia. Now his father will have two broken hearts. If confirmed, this will mean total migrant fatalities at sea will have reached about 3,000 so far this year, up from 1,500 in 2011. The total tally since 1988 is over 20,000 adults and children, according to Fortress Europe, which tracks the Mediterranean fatalities.
In the long march of everyman mass migration has been a recurring theme and, on the whole, a necessary precursor for benign development. European countries, in particular, have benefited enormously over the centuries from immigration waves that enriched the gene pool and hastened economic development but can it be legitimately claimed today, when circumstances are dramatically different, that further substantial waves are in Europe's best long-term interests and if not what, if anything, can be done to deny the Mediterranean its growing graveyard status?
On the remedial front, Italy's foreign minister, Emma Bonino, is not sanguine for a solution. She reportedly said: "There is no miraculous solution to the migrant exodus issue. If there were we would have found it and put it into action." To give Italy its due the country has borne the brunt of the exodus from North Africa, with scant help from elsewhere for what is a Euro-wide problem, and has tried various attempts at repatriation, having saved more than 100,000 boat people since last October when it launched a humanitarian effort called Mare Nostrum to intercept and rescue the migrants trying to reach the islands of Lampedusa and Sicily, the nearest landfall to North Africa. Italy has been criticised by the human rights body, Council for Europe, for being ill-prepared for a new surge of mixed migration on its coasts, claiming that its system for receiving and processing migrants and asylum seekers was not fit for purpose. All would argue, however, that the best place to deal with the problem would be at the migrant's last point of departure, and today that largely means Libya.
Target the traffickers
Between 2008 and 2010 Libya received 60 million Euro for sending over Italian police to Tripoli to link up with their local counterparts, which also included six patrol boats, vehicles and training. This meant that migrants intercepted at sea by Italian and Libyan patrol boats were immediately landed back in Libya but it turned into a public relations disaster as Libyan security forces began beating vociferous migrants and herded them into containers for transport to one of 20 detention centres scattered around the country before being sent back to their original countries. Given that since Gadaffi's overthrow Libya has sunk into lawlessness, any such cooperation would be impossible under current conditions. However, serious consideration should be given to funding covert operations to infiltrate trafficking gangs operating along the entire North African coast and perhaps elsewhere to alert authorities when illegal operations are about to begin. While it is possible that solo migrants could make it to Europe and thus avoid the ruthless gangs, the vast majority of migrants would prefer to spend thousands of pounds with the traffickers. If their operations could be destroyed, with draconian sentences for the guilty, it could go a significant way to stemming the tide. Such a scheme would have to be funded by all EU nations.
Other possible solutions are of a long-term nature. If the EU wants to reduce the migratory pressure it will have to provide more development aid, debt relief and fair trade that would see non European agricultural produce, in particular, less discriminated against. There are signs, at last, that Africa's economic development is gathering pace from a position where it was long considered an economic basket case held back by ubiquitous corruption at all levels of society, not to mention fratricidal tribal hatreds. Such growing GDP, in theory, should relieve the desire to migrate to Europe but is unlikely to have much impact unless effective population control measures are in place. If a a nation's GDP rises by, say, 5% per year while population growth is higher than that then incomes per capita will fall and so the temptation for families to encourage their children to emigrate to Europe will remain as strong as ever.
A distasteful trade off?
There is a body of opinion that suggest Europe should take in far more immigrants than it does presently because indigenous European populations, particularly in France, Italy, Holland and Germany are declining to a level that will see too few working people burdened with supporting an ageing population. According to one estimate, Europe is expected to lose 28% of its population by 2050. Such purblind beliefs, however, betray faulty elements of Malthusian doctrine. Like many economists his analysis was correct but the assumptions on which it was based were flawed. Malthus could not foresee the impact on food production that improving agricultural techniques would have and the opening up of vast agricultural lands in the New World to support a growing European population. Could it not be equally said that the population 'experts' forecasts will prove equally unsound because science does not stand still. Robots and other forms of automation will dramatically raise productivity and release labour for rechannelling into social care occupations to support a growing, ageing population. The next 50 years will also likely see stupendous medical science breakthroughs that through a combination of eliminating debilitating ailments that come with ageing and the arresting of the ageing process itself will allow workers to work much longer.
Distasteful though it may seem to maintain, if not strengthen border controls against illegal immigrants, most of whom are unskilled, economic migrants, it is a question of a trade off between the lower level of misery from migrants still pushing on Europe's doors and the potential for much greater misery within Europe that most assuredly would arise if immigration controls were relaxed substantially. The signs are already blowing in the wind. Country after country within Europe is moving ominously to the right, fuelled largely by people's concerns over immigration issues that are now clearly showing signs of harming social services and raising social costs. Even legal immigrants now settled in Europe and contributing a net benefit to society express fears over the potential of immigration issues to destabilise their countries' social harmony. If that tragic scenario unfolded would it not dwarf qualms over maintaining robust border controls?