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North African

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Drowning Refugees

The European Union’s decision-making processes lend new depth to the word “incoherent”, and the current British government’s default mode is nastiness, but they have both outdone themselves this time. The subject at hand is the Italian Navy’s “Mare Nostrum” operation, which has rescued 150,000 refugees and migrants from leaky, overloaded boats in the Mediterranean since it was launched a year ago.

An estimated 3,000 others have drowned since January: you can’t save them all. But the Italian Navy has done an excellent job, with no help at all from other EU countries – which was very unfair, since Italy is simply the nearest part of the European Union to the North African coast that the boats start out from.

Finally, after endless pleas from Italy, the other EU members gathered in Brussels earlier this month and agreed to replace the Italian ships with a joint EU mission code-named Triton. But there was a catch. In fact, there were several.

Triton will only have one-third of the financial resources that Mare Nostrum had. It will have precisely six small ships, two fixed-wing aircraft, and one helicopter, instead of the Italian Navy’s ample supply of ships and aircraft. It will have no search-and-rescue function at all, and it will only operate up to 30 nautical miles (50 km) from Italy’s coasts. Further out, they’ll just have to drown.

It’s quite an efficient way of ensuring that fewer refugees actually reach the EU, but it is so stunningly callous that even the British Foreign Office’s official spokesman felt obliged to spin it as a humanitarian initiative in heavy disguise.

“Ministers across Europe have expressed concerns,” he said, “that search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean have acted as a pull factor for illegal migration, encouraging people to make dangerous crossings in the expectation of rescue. This has led to more deaths as traffickers have exploited the situation using boats that are unfit to make the crossing.” So letting lots of them drown will presumably discourage others and save more lives in the end.

Nobody is actually expected to believe this nonsense. It’s just a “talking point” that lets the speaker deny the obvious fact that the policy is designed to appeal to the wave of anti-immigrant, anti-refugee opinion that has been drummed up by populist politicians and media in Britain and a number of other EU countries. Drowning refugees is good politics.

Enter Admiral Filippo Maria Foffi, commander-in-chief of the Italian Navy, who promptly torpedoed the whole “drown them to save them” argument.

The refugees, fleeing from  Syria, Eritrea or even further afield, travel for up to three months before they reach the shores of North Africa, he said. They suffer hardships that kill up to half of them, and then they board the boats. “If someone is speaking about a ‘pulling factor’, he doesn’t know what he is speaking about.”

Foffi had more to say. He had received no orders from the Italian government to shut down Mare Nostrum, he said, and so long as he did not he would continue the search-and-rescue operations.

What about the recent statement by Angelino Alfano, the leader of a small right-wing party and interior minister in the Italian coalition government, that Mare Nostrum would indeed be closed down? Foffi replied that he received his orders from the prime minister through the defence minister. Responding to some random statement by another minister was “not the way that military men conduct their activities.”

There was clearly a struggle underway within the Italian government about whether to just let the refugees die, or to continue doing search-and-rescue operations alone in the absence of an acceptable substitute paid for by the EU. Officially Mare Nostrum is now closed down, but there is still hope that the Italian Navy may continue at least part of the operation on a less formal basis.

The EU, of course, is acting with its usual combination of cowardice and confusion. The British government is playing dog-whistle politics again: it expects the target audience, those who are being seduced away from their Conservative roots by the anti-immigrant UKIP Party, to understand that it really wants to drown the refugees, not save them.

And lots of other European governments really want to drown the refugees too: the amount of money at stake is not large enough to serve as an alternative explanation for this decision. It may yet be thwarted, at least in part, by admirable Italians like Filippo Maria Foffi, but the EU is really talking about killing people here. Or letting them die, if you prefer, but it comes down to much the same thing.

How long before they start actively killing refugees fleeing from war, hunger and climate change along Europe’s Mediterranean sea frontier (and along Australia’s northern sea frontier, and the US border with Mexico, and probably South Africa’s northern border too)? Ten to fifteen years, at a guess. We’ll all have got used to the principle by then.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 11.  (“Nobody…politics”; and “What…activities”)

Mare Nostrum

The last time “Mare Nostrum”(Latin for “Our Sea”) was used as a political slogan in Italy, Mussolini’s fascists were claiming dominance over the entire Mediterranean. This time it’s different. It’s the name of the operation the Italian navy is running to save asylum seekers from drowning on the dangerous voyage in open boats from North Africa to Italy.

In a seaworthy vessel with a working engine and a reliable compass, it’s a ten-hour crossing and not very dangerous at all. In a leaky, massively overcrowded wreck that was scavenged somewhere along the North African coast by the people smugglers and sent off to Italy after a few rudimentary repairs, it can be a death sentence. An estimated 20,000 people went down with their boats before reaching Italy in the past ten years.

The most recent victims, on 23 August, barely made it half a mile off the Libyan coast before their boat sank, leaving 170 people in the water. The Italian navy does not operate in Libyan territorial waters, and the Libyan coast guard station near Qarabouli, east of Tripoli, has no ships of its own. The coast guards borrowed a couple of fishing boats, but only sixteen people were still alive by the time they got there.

The boats usually founder in international waters, however, and then it’s the Italian navy’s job. Operation Mare Nostrum began in October, 2013, and since then over 80,000 people have been pulled from these sea-going death traps (though most were not actually sinking at the time) and safely landed in Italy. Last weekend, the Italian navy rescued almost 4,000 more.

This policy honours Italy’s humanitarian traditions – but since all the people who are saved claim political asylum on coming ashore, setting in motion a legal process that can last for years, the Italian navy is actually increasing Italy’s problem as the first port of call for over half the undocumented immigrants entering the European Union.

Most of them have a good case for claiming asylum: a large majority of the people reaching Italy are refugees from war and tyranny in Syria, Eritrea, and Somalia, with smaller number from various West African countries. Nor do they really want to stay in Italy, which is going through a prolonged economic crisis and has very high unemployment. They would rather move on to more prosperous EU countries further north.

But international law says that refugees must claim asylum in the first safe haven they reach, and in the case of the EU that is almost bound to be Italy, because it is so near to Africa and because the post-Gaddafi chaos in Libya means that there is no control over boats leaving the Libyan coast.
Italy is now getting more than half of the EU’s entire refugee flow – probably well over 100,000 this year – and all of those people must stay in Italy. It’s expensive, it’s politically poisonous, and the country’s facilities for looking after these refugees are being overwhelmed. Yet Italy’s’s EU partners seem quite content to leave Italy to bear the burden all by itself.

With almost all of the Fertile Crescent now in a state of war, and new flows of refugees starting as a result of the fighting in South Sudan and the Central African Republic, the numbers are going up fast. Five Italian warships are dedicated full-time to Operation Mare Nostrum, and on many occasions in the past few months they have picked up more than a thousand people in one day. This situation cannot last.

Italy has made no threats to stop the rescues and let the refugees drown. “We do not want a sea of death,” said Rear-Admiral Michele Saponaro, who runs the operation from the naval command centre. But Rome is losing patience with its do-nothing EU “partners”, and there is another way to address Italy’s problem.

The Schengen Treaty does not include Britain and Ireland, which opted out, and four new EU members have not yet complied with its terms – but 22 of the EU’s 28 members allow free movement across their borders for legal residents of all the Schengen countries. This includes Italy, of course. So in theory if Italy just gives the asylum seekers an ID card and a document saying they have permanent residence, then they’ll leave for greener pastures.

“We’ll just let them go,” said Interior Minister Angelino Alfano last May. “We want to clearly say to the EU that they either patrol the Mediterranean border with us or we will send all those who ask for asylum in Italy where they really want to go: that is, the rest of Europe, because they don’t want to stay in Italy.”

A previous Italian government briefly made the same threat back in 2011 and then the rift was papered over, but Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s new government seems to mean business. Italy not only wants its partners to contribute money and ships to Operation Mare Nostrum; it also wants them to share the job of looking after the refugees AND NOT LEAVE THEM ALL IN ITALY.

The EU is famously bad at making hard choices, but it’s finally going to have to face up to this one.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 9. (“Most…coast”; and “With…last”)