My weekly Guardian column:
Surely bombing yet another Muslim country is a mistake. But that’s exactly what Italian foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni has called for – attacks on Islamic State (Isis) positions in Libya to stem the flow of refugees streaming into Europe.
Calls for tough action, like Gentiloni’s, are growing in response to refugees drowning during the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean Ocean. Last year nearly 5,000 men, women and children perished at sea. This year at least 1,600 people have already died.
The desire to shut the door to Europe entirely is perhaps understandable, but it’s the wrong decision. It dishonestly uses the fantasy of small and ordered queues of asylum seekers to sell Europe as a safe haven.
And yet the modern, international system of protecting asylum seekers, set up in the wake of the Holocaust, has never looked more incapable of dealing with some of the worst humanitarian crises since the Second World War.
Over 4 million Syrians have fled their country since 2011. Aside from the refugees pouring into Italy, around 100 Syrians arrive every day by boat on Greece’s Dodecanese islands.
The country is logistically incapable of managing the influx and struggles with some of the most unaccepting attitudes to refugees in Europe (though a new, left-wing Syriza government is already releasing thousands of immigrants housed in horrible detention centres, sites I witnessed in Corinth in 2014). Some in Europe are more open. A recent poll found that 50% of Germans were in favour of taking more refugees.
The UN is practically begging Western nations to shelter Syrian refugees but the response from America, Britain, Australia and Canada has been desultory. The Saudi-led campaign against Yemen is likely to cause more people to flee a country that was already struggling before the current bombing. African leaders, from where many migrants are coming due to repression, are largely mute.
In Europe, anti-immigrant sentiment is electorally popular. It’s not a tough sell. Economic uncertainty, questions around migrant integration, Al-Qaeda or Isis-inspired violence against civilians and questions around European identity end up expressing themselves in a fear of Islam and terrorism, which are doubts politicians exploit.
And the sheer scale of refugee arrivals in Italy is even causing some asylum seekers themselves to wonder with whom they have been travelling. There are often no checks or registration on arrival and some told Foreign Policy recently that it was entirely possible that members of Isis or other militant groups were travelling among them as a way to enter Europe.
European state identity is morphing into a less homogenous collection of nations. It’s undeniably becoming more socially conservative, Muslim and unfamiliar to traditional, Christian sensibilities.
The EU’s possible solution to these changes, mimicking Australia’s offshore detention network, is to establish processing camps in non-EU nations such as Niger, Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey – as a way to keep the problem away from Europe.
To implement such a system in states that already have huge asylum burdens guarantees poor conditions and corruption. This has been Australia’s experience with awful Pacific island detention camps which have done next to nothing to alter the increasingly desperate nature of 21st century migration flows, except to keep them from settling safely in Australia.
Canberra finds itself making deals with repressive states like Cambodia and Vietnam, and tiny Island nations like Nauru, but is mistaken if it believes resettling refugees there will deter a family leaving war-torn Syria, Libya or Iraq trying to reach somewhere secure.
After all, the west’s participation in Middle Eastern wars is what’s accelerating this huge population transfer. Libya, where Gentiloni wants to drop his bombs, was meant to be peaceful after the 2011 overthrow of the Gaddafi regime. But Libya is broken, with French oil producer Total SA cutting and running this month.
The result of Europe’s lack of investment in Libya after the end of the dictator has borne results: political chaos, violence and a wave of refugees fleeing. Not that this has stopped Libya’s broke, ruling government still having money for a Washington-based lobbyist – though it’s unclear who is paying the bill.
The EU is showing every indication of wanting to push the refugee “problem” off its soil, a sign of its unwillingness to deal with the fruits of its foreign policy. Adequate search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean are not happening due to the spurious argument that saving people will only encourage more to come.
The result is many more deaths at sea; because of their brown and black skin, governments don’t fear a public outcry to save them. The compassionate and correct response is to not allow people to drown. Instead, European nations are pushing for drones to monitor the Mediterranean (with Israeli government and corporate assistance, since they’re global leaders in the technology) and warships on the Libyan coast.
Europe, like Australia, views this issue as a security threat and not a humanitarian crisis. The response follows this logic. People smugglers are framed as the ultimate enemy. Rarely are Western policies acknowledged as being part of the problem.
One solution is to ease the path for migrants to enter the EU in a safe and responsible way. It is increasingly difficult for refugees to claim asylum in overseas embassies, forcing them to take alternative paths. Last year nearly half of migrants rescued in the Mediterranean came from Syria, Eritrea and Somalia – and yet the EU does little to find solutions in those states.
The EU hosts few of the world’s refugees, the UNHCR has found that 86% of the world’s total reside in developing nations, so rhetoric about a supposed migrant “invasion” is false. Australia argues similarly, though its intake could be far higher, too.
Europe is mimicking an Australian immigration architecture that profits from surveillance and detention. Greek journalist Apostolis Fotiadis, author of the just released book Border Merchants, wrote after the recent Mediterranean drownings that, “promoting reactionary policies dressed up with words of grief seems to have become a habit [for the EU].”
Europe is learning, as Australia surely will, that constructing a fortress around their privileged nations while politicising human tragedies is a road to further unrest.