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Mare Nostrum

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The Traditions of the Sea and the EU

Late last year, the governments of the European Union, having refused to share the cost of a very successful operation called Mare Nostrum in which the Italian Navy rescued tens of thousands of refugees from sinking boats in the Mediterranean, replaced it with a much smaller operation called Operation Triton. Its purpose (though they didn’t put it exactly that way) was NOT to rescue the refugees, because then they ended up in the European Union.

Triton was a “coastguard” operation, with a third of the budget of Mare Nostrum and orders only to patrol Italian and Maltese coastal waters. They could save any boatloads of refugees that made it that far, but they were not to do “search and rescue” operations off the Libyan coast, which is where most of the overloaded boats actually founder.

Inevitably, the death toll from drownings in the first five months of this year was thirty times higher than in the same period last year: at least 1,750 human beings. The losses were so shocking that an emergency EU meeting in late April boosted Triton’s budget back up to the level of Mare Nostrum – but they didn’t change its “mission”. It was still only supposed to operate in EU coastal waters.

But then something odd happened. Last weekend, ships from the Italian, British, German and Irish navies rescued more than 4,000 people in two days – the vast majority of them just off the Libyan coast. The EU has not condemned the operation, but it wasn’t really the EU’s plan. What drove it was the sheer reluctance of the navies to stand by and let people drown.

The European politicians face a huge demand from their electorates to stop the seemingly endless flow of “migrants” (the preferred term for refugees, since it elicits less sympathy) across the Mediterranean. 170,000 people made it across last year, and it could be double that number this year unless lots and lots of them drown. But the voters (or most of them) don’t want to hear about that, and most of the politicians are not very brave.

So the politicians did what the voters wanted. At some level they must have understood the consequences of stopping the search-and-rescue operation, but they found ways of lying to themselves. First of all they said that all these life-saving operations were just encouraging more people to risk the crossing. Stop saving them, and they won’t come.

Ridiculous: these are desperate people who have already faced many big risks to get as far as Libya. They kept coming, and the horrendous death-toll this spring got the media so excited that the politicians had to do something – but not, of course, anything that would actually result in more people arriving in Europe. So they gave more money to Operation Triton, but they still didn’t give it a life-saving role.

Instead, they came up with some nonsense about saving the refugees from drowning by destroying the people-smugglers’ boats on the shores of Libya before they went to sea. It’s the “new slave trade,” and we’re just saving the refugees from themselves. Of course, the EU hasn’t actually destroyed any boats (which would be an act of war against Libya).

What they didn’t reckon with was their own navies, who come at this from a very different angle. The sailors don’t have to worry about the voters, and on the whole they are not terribly fond of the politicians, but they certainly do know about the sea. And one of the oldest traditions of the sea is that you do not leave people to drown.

Everybody who has spent much time at sea knows that it is an intrinsically hostile environment. Alone and unsupported by technology (including flotation gear), you will survive in the water for a matter of minutes, or at most, if you are very fit and lucky, for an hour or two. So when you see somebody in the water, you do everything you can to save them – because another time, it could be you.

When I was in the navy we were once first on the scene of a collision in which a tanker had exploded in flames. There was little chance of survivors, as oil had spilled and the sea was on fire around the stricken ship, but we searched all night and into the next day anyway. Nobody questioned why we were doing it, nobody even discussed it. There is no higher priority in a peacetime navy.

I was not on the warships attached to Operation Triton to overhear the conversations of the people on the bridge, but I am sure that they were outraged by their orders. So they gradually pushed out beyond the appointed bounds of Operation Triton to the places where the people were actually dying, and none of the politicians dared to expose themselves as heartless bastards by telling them to come back.

Eventually it has become the new de facto policy of the European Union – just like the old Mare Nostrum policy, before the European governments got at it.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 11. (“Instead…Libya”; and “When…navy”)

NOTE: If you think that “heartless bastards” will upset your readers, you may substitute “gutless cowards”, or even “craven opportunists”.

Half a Titanic

The first thing to do, if you want to cut the number of refugees from Africa and the Middle East dying while trying to cross the Mediterranean, is to drop leaflets all along the Libyan coast teaching them about ship stability. Don’t all rush to one side when you spot a ship that might save you, the pamphlets will say, because your boat will capsize and you will drown.

That’s what happened last weekend off the Libyan coast, where a boat filled with at least 700 refugees overturned when the people aboard spotted a Portuguese freighter and tried to attract its attention. (One survivor says there were 950 people aboard, including those locked below decks. ) At least 650 people died – half a Titanic’s worth of casualties – although the boat in question was only 20 metres (70 ft.) long. Only 28 people were saved.

Exactly the same thing happened with another boat crammed with refugees the previous week, and another 400 people drowned. Counting another 300+ people who drowned in another disaster in February, the death toll right now, before the peak summer season for refugee crossings, is around 1,500. That’s a full Titanic. It’s not getting quite as many headlines, though.

So the second thing to do is to lock the European Union’s foreign ministers into a room and refuse to let them have caviar and champagne until they agree to do something about the silent massacre in the Mediterranean. Something quite effective was being done until late last year, but they deliberately stopped it.

Until late last year the Italian navy (praise be upon it) was running an operation called Mare Nostrum that went all the way to the edge of Libya’s territorial waters to pluck refugees from the sea. The operation cost 9.5 million euros a month ($10.3 million), but it rescued 100,000 people from leaking boats or the open sea. More than half of the 170,000 refugees who landed in Italy had cause to thank the Italian navy, and only one in a hundred died.

The number of refugees arriving in Italy each month is around the same this year, maybe a little higher – but ten times as many people are dying on the way. That is because the European Union’s governments, rather than sharing the cost of the Mare Nostrum project, asked Italy to shut it down and substituted their own “Triton” operation.

Except that “Triton” is in no way an adequate substitute. It only gets a third of funding Mare Nostrum had, and it is only supposed to operate in Italy’s coastal waters, not farther out where most of the refugee boats capsize or founder. Even this year, with the Italian navy theoretically excused from duty, it has saved twice as many people as the pathetic “Triton” operation. Which, by the way, was INTENDED to be pathetic.

The argument the European governments made was that if you didn’t give the refugees the hope that they would be saved by the Italian navy, fewer of them would come. Right, so if you’re fleeing the civil war in Syria or the ghastly dictatorship in Eritrea, and you learn that the danger of dying on a Mediterranean crossing has gone up from one percent to ten percent, you’re going to decide to stay in war-torn Libya instead?

Were the European governments lying to themselves, or just to everybody else? The latter, almost certainly. They were under pressure at home to stop the flow of migrants, they didn’t want to share the burden of saving them with the admirable Italians, but they couldn’t just say “Let them drown.” So they came up with that preposterous argument about deterring the migrants by making the crossing more dangerous, and shut Mare Nostrum down.

“In many countries in Europe at the moment,” said Laurens Jolles, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Italy, “the (political) dialogue and the rhetoric is quite extreme and very irresponsible….It’s a fear of foreigners…, but it is being exploited for populist or political reasons, especially in election periods.”

Too true. Take, for example, Katie Hopkins, columnist for The Sun, a down-market right-wing British red-top (tabloid newspaper) owned by the estimable Rupert Murdoch. Last Friday, in an article headlined “Rescue boats? I’d use gunships to stop migrants”, she wrote: “NO, I don’t care. Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care.”

“Make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit “Bob Geldof’s Ethiopia circa 1984”, but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb. They are survivors….It’s time to get Australian. Bring on the gunships, force migrants back to their shores and burn the boats.”

Saying that sort of thing is how she earns her living, but it also expresses the true sentiments of a politically significant minority not only in Britain but in most countries throughout the European Union. When the UNHCR appealed to the EU to resettle 130,000 Syrian refugees, Germany said it would take 30,000, Sweden (with a tenth of Germany’s population) took 2,700 –and the other 26 EU states only took 5,438 between them.

So the drownings will continue.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 9 and 12. (“Exactly…though”; “Were…down”; and “Make…boats”)