Theresa May has been attending the latest meeting in Europe where ministers from across the region are trying to come up with a solution for the dreadful problem of thousands of people fleeing north Africa hoping for sanctuary in the relative safety of Europe.
This is what the Home Secretary had to say as she arrived:
‘Of course, the crisis in terms of migrants who cross the Mediterranean is a problem in two ways. First of all, obviously, lives are being put at risk but secondly, as we see in Calais and elsewhere, it’s putting great pressure on European towns and cities which is even reaching to our borders, although we are not part of the borderless Schengen area.
‘To deal with this issue in the long term we need to go after the criminal gangs who are plying a terrible, callous trade in human lives.
‘We also need to break the link between people getting into the boats and reaching Europe. That means returning people to North Africa or elsewhere, or to their homes countries; so that they see that there is no merit in this journey.’
The desperate people so frequently rescued from shabby boats in the Mediterranean Sea are routinely referred to as migrants; this almost suggests their decision to try and escape to Europe is a lifestyle choice. They are rarely called refugees, yet, such is the turmoil in that part of the world, it is almost inevitable than the majority have fled conflicts in Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Central African Republic and Libya itself. And, according to aid agencies, increasing numbers of people from Syria, where nine million people are displaced and more than four million people have fled abroad, are arriving to seek passage.
Libya, despite facing immense post-Gaddafi violence, is an obvious place for a migrant/refugee to target such is the coast's proximity with the southern reaches of several European countries. And there is no doubt that many who ultimately get there are victims of people trafficking gangs. Theresa May is right to say they are 'plying a terrible, callous trade in human lives'. But, while, Western nations may have the best of intentions to pursue these gangs, there is no realistic means to do such a thing. No troops are going to be put on the ground in Libya, drones cannot be used; the gangs will continue their trade unmolested for the foreseeable future.
My primary concern, however, with Ms May's statement is the last paragraph which demonstrates that the Home Secretary entered into these negotiations with not only utterly unachievable, but also the wrong, ambitions. Earlier this week Amnesty International released a report on the 'global refugee crisis' highlighting the dangers of the Mediterranean crossing, describing it as the 'most dangerous in the world' and attacking Western governments for their consistent failure to acknowledge and even start addressing the world's largest refugee crisis in Syria.
But even this crisis has competition. Steve Symonds, Amnesty's Refugee Programme director, said:
'In South East Asia we've seen boats full of desperate and starving people literally pushed back by Indonesia and Malaysia before they were shamed into taking them in.
'This compassion deficit seems to be a global fatigue.'
And the UK could be described as being amongst the most fatigued countires of all.According to Amnesty, out of the four million who have escaped the Syrian civil war, Britain has resettled a pathetic 187.
Theresa May talks of returning people to North Africa, to their home countries, apparently with the intent of proving that 'they see there is no merit in this journey'. This actually means that the British government would rather actively seek to return people to war zones, under the most wretched circumstances, than contemplate the possibility of offering sanctuary. It is reassuring that HMS Bulwark is to continue doing its sterling work rescuing hundreds of people from the sea's waters, but simply trying to return them to their places of origin does nothing to solve the problem. And it's hard to imagine how any Western government could demonstrate to someone fleeing for their lives that there is no 'merit in this journey'. Those undertaking the perilous journey are doing so, not because they fancied a quick jaunt across the Med, but in the hope that they and their families might actually live. Argue with the 'merit' of their journeys as the barrel bombs are falling.
Britain once had a proud heritage of offering sanctuary to the oppressed and desperate, a record governments are eager to invoke. But we do not any longer. Like the Clinton government before, which refused to use the word 'genocide' in reference to the killings in Rwanda just to avoid being obliged to intervene, this government and the coalition before it, refuse to recognise the reality of the situation for parochial, political reasons, which necessitates a refusal to adopt a functional immigration system. Until we do so, the boats will keep coming, will continue sinking & people will try ever more dangerous ways to try find a place they can survive. Britain is shirking its responsibilities and it's a state of affairs which should shame us all.