By Stephan Manning.
Most of us have been horrified by recent news: in the last few days hundreds of people have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean Sea trying to migrate to Europe from Africa by boat in their desperate hopes for a better life. According to the International Organization for Migration, since the beginning of 2015, more than 10,000 people – from West Africa, Somalia and other regions struck by poverty and violent conflict – have made their way to the coasts of Italy and Malta via Libya in often overcrowded boats. Nearly a thousand have presumably died on this journey this year alone. And this is just the latest chapter of an ongoing tragedy. In 2014, nearly 3,500 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea, which many call the deadliest migrant crossing in the world. In face of recent events, the European Commission has expressed a “moral and humanitarian obligation to act”. But is this call sufficient to mobilize action and prevent such tragedies? In fact, this announcement sounds like an echo of similar calls from the past. For example, following the death of 360 migrants off the coast of Lampedusa on October 3 2013, Cecilia Malmström, European Commissioner for Home Affairs, said: “Let’s make sure that what happened in Lampedusa will be a wakeup call to increase solidarity and mutual support and to prevent similar tragedies in the future.” Yet, things have apparently become worse, not better since then. So why is there no solution in sight despite our “moral duty to act”? And what does it really take to address the problem?
Let’s face it: Unfortunately, our world continues to be hit by human tragedies due to war and conflict, environmental disasters, and business misconduct. Yet, the way and degree to which we respond to such tragedies and help prevent them from happening in the future varies quite substantially. Reasons for this are manifold and complex, but I would like to discuss three specific reasons why I think the Mediterranean tragedy is likely to continue while other recent disasters are more likely to be prevented from happening in the future.
Lack of government responsibility. There is no doubt that one major group responsible for not just overloading boats but also causing boats to sink are gangs of traffickers who offer people high-risk journeys to Europe in exchange for money, organs or other commodities. Yet, when it comes to fighting such trafficking practices, responsibilities are less clear. On the one hand, traffickers typically operate across borders – from Somalia and Nigeria to Libya and other countries. That is why it is difficult to ‘pin down’ which country is to be held responsible for allowing/preventing such practices (see also UNODC report). A similar problem applies to child trafficking and related forced labor practices on cocoa farms in West Africa. On the other hand, even though, due to geographic proximity, the first point of contact of incoming boats from Libya are the coasts of Italy and Malta, it is unclear who is ultimately responsible for rescue missions and preventing casualties. In the words of Italian Prime Minister Renzi, responsibility to address the problem lies with the whole world, “not just Italy and Malta.” But how “world responsibility” can turn into effective collective action is far from obvious.
Lack of business interest in solutions. It may sound cynical, but the reason why some disasters can be more easily prevented from happening again are business interests. One example is the Germanwings plane crash in March, killing 150 people, which has been linked to Lufthansa’s staffing policies and working conditions. The incident has had considerable financial impact on the airline, including pay-outs of $54,000 per victim, which motivates Lufthansa to prevent future accidents, beyond their moral obligation. As another example, the devastating garment factory collapse in Bangladesh on April 24 2013, killing over 1,100 people, raised awareness of responsibility of fashion brands for workers’ safety and led leading buyers to sign the ‘Accord for Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh’ to prevent future disasters. Even in the difficult case of transnational child trafficking in West Africa, campaigns against child labor on cocoa farms have led chocolate brands and producing countries to promote more effective measures against child slavery and trafficking. By contrast, there seems to be no immediate business interest in preventing the Mediterranean tragedy from happening – neither from the African nor the European side. This will slow down measures against this ongoing catastrophe.
Lack of public support and sympathy. Another rather disturbing piece of the puzzle is the lack of coherent public support for effective measures against the killings of thousands of migrants south of European shores every year. On the surface, Europe’s “moral obligation to help” may reflect the conscience of many Europeans; yet, the “silent majority opinion” might be a more ambiguous one. In fact, the growing death toll in front of European borders coincides with a looming fear of increasing, more or less “legal” migration to Europe. Social movements against migration, such as Pegida – Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West –, are a symptom of that. And if British journalist and provocateur Katie Hopkins says in her recent, much cited and criticized, Sun article “What we need are gunships sending these boats back to their own country”, then this is perhaps more than just a single person’s opinion but a reflection of what a significant number of Europeans think. And this way of thinking may not only weaken the European mandate to conduct rescue missions and better regulate migration, but undermine longer-term development efforts to for example promote peace-building and strengthen political and economic structures in Africa and the Middle East.
So what does it take to develop an effective solution, given the conditions described above? As talks among European governments are ongoing, a few organizations have already decided to take action. Among them is Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) who, in collaboration with Migrant Offshore Aid Station, will launch systematic search and rescue activities in May, no matter what European governments will decide. MSF is a transnational organization that operates independent of government, business and public support, on the basis of donations and humanitarian principles of action (donations welcome!). Do we need more non-partisan organizations like this – who operate “Without Borders” – to tackle humanitarian problems of transnational scale in the blind spot of government responsibility, business interests and public attention? Or does it perhaps take a new alliance of interests of governments, businesses and other players to complement the ongoing talks about “moral duty” with a longer-term strategy and infrastructure for coordinated action? Thoughts and comments are welcome!
*Picture taken from: Avril Benoît (@avrilbenoit)
Doctors Without Borders: http://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/