The Malta Independent 14 October 2019, Monday

How many more must die before Europe takes action?

Malta Independent Sunday, 20 July 2014, 09:00 Last update: about 6 years ago



There are so many subjects worthy of today’s leading article: the curious circumstances surrounding the appointment of a new judge and the retirement of another; the ongoing debate over the salary of a minister’s wife; the ‘privatisation’ of Enemalta; the local council elections debacle; the renewed turmoil in Libya and even Joseph Calleja’s wonderful concert on Friday.

But in this newspaper’s opinion all these issues pale in comparison to the ongoing loss of lives – in their dozens, scores, hundreds or even thousands - on our very doorstep.

This continuous human tragedy is, as the Prime Minister once accurately put it, is turning the Mediterranean into a cemetery.

And in the meantime, the European Union, which fashions itself as the world’s great humanitarian bloc, the defender of the voiceless and the epitome of humanitarianism, sits back and watches these tragedies unfold one after another while it allows mainly Italy and Malta, and soon even a very well-intentioned NGO, take care of the rescue operations, to pluck the survivors from the beautiful yet unforgiving sea and to deal with the aftermaths of one tragedy after another.

This is not about burden sharing or taking Malta’s already settled refugees off this island’s hands for resettlement elsewhere in the bloc. This is not a cry for resources to deal with the ‘problem’. This is, pure and simple, about saving lives – no more and no less.

Malta, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Spain – the EU’s southern frontier states – are blue in the face from repeatedly begging for real, tangible EU solutions to the yearly crises they face. And those crises are about the mass loss of life on their very doorsteps and, quite frankly, it is the rest of the EU that should be more than a little red in the face by now.

Have we as Europeans become so desensitised to the plight of these people?  After all the years of these desperate individuals seeking entry to Europe – in so many ways their perceived Promised Land – after fleeing war, famine and persecution in their home countries, it is unfathomable how Europe as a whole has not risen up to face this humanitarian crisis?

On Friday, yet another human tragedy unfolded between Malta and Lampedusa. Since Thursday, some 5,000 migrants have been rescued by Italy, many with Maltese help. But 19 of those died when their vessel began sinking – reports from the Maltese authorities say they died in an onboard stampede, the Italian authorities say they died of fume inhalation. Their technical cause of death at this point is quite irrelevant. The root cause of their deaths was a callous Europe that conveniently turns a blind eye to them and thousands more like them. They set off from their home countries seeking the safety and security of Europe, where they believed they could, at long last, live in peace. 

Instead, they met their deaths just 80 kilometres from their goal.

Europe as a whole must be held collectively responsible for those deaths because of its inaction on the migration front, as well as for the hundreds of deaths resulting from the double Lampedusa tragedies last October and the hundreds if not thousands of deaths.

Could Europe possibly be so foolish as to think that if a problem is ignored long enough it will simply go away, that the multiple geopolitical situations in Africa will somehow iron themselves out and that the migration phenomenon will die a natural death?

Italy, through its laudable Mare Nostrum project, has virtually taken control of the situation in the central Mediterranean. Italy has shown its determination to ensure that there are no more repeats of the double Lampedusa tragedies last October. So far and despite the deaths reported yesterday, it is performing admirably. 

But Italy has effectively stepped in where the EU has for one reason or another, feared to tread. And calls by both Italy and Malta for the EU to assume operational control of Mare Nostrum have not been met, despite all the EU’s fine words.

European Commission President José Manuel Barroso recently thanked Italy for “saving thousands of lives in the Mediterranean” through its Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operations. That is all well and good but it is now high time that the EU itself takes ownership of Mare Nostrum, as Italy and Malta have been jointly lobbying in favour of.

It is, after all, only when the whole of the EU bands together to solve what is a truly pan-European issue that real and tangible results will be forthcoming.

The concept of setting up a UNHCR frontline office in Libya, which would effectively assess asylum seekers’ claims before they set sail on rickety boats on the perilous Mediterranean crossing, would be an immensely positive development in what is an otherwise completely Wild West scenario. Those who have had their asylum requests approved would be distributed by the UNHCR across Europe, instead of making their way to Malta or Italy, while failed asylum seekers could be repatriated to their countries of origin straight from Libya.

In an interview in today’s issue, a Syrian man who survived his wife and young child after they perished in the 11 October Lampedusa tragedy says that he believes his wife and daughter did not die in vain as Europe is waking up to and addressing the true scale of the problem.  Let us make sure he is proved right.

But despite that, and despite the fact that the European Commission and so many more have pledged there would never be another repeat of the October tragedies, the loss of life continues. Who knows how many more lives will be lost before the summer gives way to autumn? 

The EU must, once and for all, commit itself to addressing this perpetual humanitarian crisis and say, once and for all, that “enough is enough”.

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