Robert Young Pelton is an American author, a senior journalist and documentary filmmaker, specialized in conflict reporting and interviews with military and political figures in warzones. His reputation is built on his history of entering forbidden, deadly and violent places.
This summer a quarter of a million people fled across the Mediterranean by small ships and rafts. Lured by smugglers and forced onto discarded fishing boats, the migrants are directed to head north and call for help when they are past Libya’s Bouri oil fields and into international shipping lanes.
Citizens of Syria, Eritrea, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Gambia, Somalia, Bangladesh and dozens of other countries simply hope they won’t die as they head north in the dark. Some families buy pool floats to keep their children alive, some pay extra to sit on top, while others are crushed below, used as human ballast.
For those who can’t afford passage on the Egyptian or Tunisian-sourced fishing boats, there are homemade rubber rafts. Plywood floors often cut through the rubberized canvas, dumping the passengers into the ocean a few miles from shore. The migrants subject themselves to this life-threatening journey because there is no safe way out of their predicament. They risk their lives at sea and they know they will also run the gauntlet of angry southern European nations if they do make it to land.
We are seeing the globalization of borders, where people view the entire world as a place to choose where to pursue a better life. Most people may not agree with this view, but the migrant crisis is proving that governments are powerless to stop it.
The EU could easily use their resources to pre-process, organize, and fly these people to the regions that want them, but it instead blames the migrants, not the system that kills them. The deaths cause public outrage, which then sparks rescues, which then creates a backlash when the new arrivals end up stressing Europe’s social and police systems. The politicians then harden their stance, creating barriers until more deaths are caused by adaptive but cruel smugglers, and the cycle begins again.
Simply put, Europe has not, will not and cannot stop the flow of humans seeking a better life. So they should deal with the situation: humanely, legally and quickly.
The boats are the most visible, most desperate way for refugees to reach Europe. Panicked in the open water, many passengers surge to one side when they see help, and flip their crafts — drowning those below and those who can’t swim. Their screams are the soundtrack of the daily rescues in the Mediterranean.
The website MigrantReport.org, which I publish, has documented this horror. The photos of drowned children are particularly gruesome.
The political argument that the drownings are a deterrent to would-be migrants is false. They are not. In fact, it is surprising that more of the 59 million displaced people around the world — as well the combined populations of Africa and the Middle East — aren’t heading for Europe.
The movement of humans from bad things to better things starts in Africa and the Middle East. This year, according to the UNHCR, 63 percent of all migrants to Europe are Syrian. The war in and around Syria has displaced 9 million people, with a third of those people seeking food and shelter outside of Syria. Since the war began in March 2011, only 150,000 have actually been allowed inside Europe.
News readers were shocked to see hundreds of migrant drownings in the early part of this year. But now that the Italian, Irish, Swedish and British navies and private groups like the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) have begun patrolling the Mediterranean, rescue at sea has become more common.
MOAS (where I am an advisor) uses an Alaskan fishing boat and professional search and rescue teams, along with the doctors from Medecins Sans Frontieres, to save migrants at risk of drowning. The nonprofit was created by Christopher and Regina Catrambone in 2014, back when 30 to 40 percent of the rescues were carried out by large commercial ships, small coast guard vessels or navy leviathans. MOAS exists only to rescue people in distress at sea. So far it has saved over 10,000 men, women and children.
MOAS flies Schiebel S-100 camcopter drones inside Libyan airspace so that it can identify migrants in crisis and reach them early. It and others are part of a coordinated maritime rescue campaign that is reminiscent of the 1979 Vietnamese boat crisis after the fall of Saigon, or even the rescue at Dunkirk.
So far in 2015 more than 250,000 people have reached Europe by sea, and more than 2000 have drowned in the attempt. This mass floating movement exists because Europe has so far refused to properly address the massive influx of people that are arriving at the EU’s borders.
According to polls, around 80 percent of southern Europe, which bears the brunt of migration, does not want these newcomers. Northern Europe is more welcoming, with numbers about half that. Voters’ views on the crisis have shaped the “get tough” policy of Europe, which can be seen in images of tear-gassed families lunging through razor wire in Macedonia, migrants blocked from trains in Budapest or living in grim shanties like “The Jungle” outside Calais.
If these refugees are not accepted into the tiny number of asylum slots in Europe, they have nowhere to go in a system that considers them to be an “invasion” and the Mediterranean a medieval-style moat. It’s time to change the solution, because the problem has remained resolutely the same and is rapidly increasing. Twice as many migrants have entered Europe in the first six months of 2015 than during the entire year of 2014.
Unlike America, Europe is not used to migration, so some nations prefer to die slowly from within rather than embrace the growth this movement would bring. The countries that most staunchly oppose new settlers have grim statistics. The populations of Hungary, Latvia, Ukraine, Bulgaria and many others are shrinking and getting older. Some countries, like Spain, have barely measurable growth rates. Italy, with similarly anemic population growth, has hill villages that welcome migrants to shore up the economy and inhabit empty homes.
Today’s migrant situation is reminiscent of 70 years ago, when millions of Europeans sailed on boats to America, Australia and Canada. Every wave of immigration creates fear and resentment, but ultimately the migrants form a new version of the country they came to.
This week, after the discovery of 71 dead migrants dead in a meat truck in Austria and the drowning of babies off the Libyan coast, we finally saw world leaders try a different tact. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon made a rare personal appeal for “compassion and humanity.” German leader Angela Merkel defended migrants by saying “The freedom of movement is one of Europe’s basic principles.” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls proclaimed: “The responsibility of us all is to make sure the right to asylum … is respected everywhere. One cannot avoid it with barbed wire.”
Or destroy it with sinking boats.