Helping the desperate is our only option – if we continue as we are things will deteriorate

“WHO are you and what are you doing here?” is not really how I’m used to being spoken to when on mission, but I wasn’t going to argue with four men each with a casually slung Kalashnikov to make up for, or perhaps bring on, the lack of manners.

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First published in The Sunday Herald, 11 October 2015

I was outside Kelibia in northeast Tunisia, on a beautiful sandy beach just up from an evidently upmarket holiday destination. But I was there with a more sobering mission: to see how the migrant and refugee issues are impacting upon the still-fragile democracy in Tunisia, and see for myself the beach where an estimated 28,000 Tunisians have embarked since 2012, aiming for the Italian island of Pantelleria. Some 1,500 of those didn’t make it, and the Tunisian government has announced an inquiry into the tragedy to try to give their relatives some sort of closure.

I think the biggest issues facing the European Union as a collective are the migrant and refugee crises. Note, two crises, both of them needing different solutions. Refugees are defined in Article One of the Geneva Convention as anyone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country”. 

Each state has a duty to look after people fleeing immediate harm, though in Tunisia now the issue is emphatically not refugees. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), whom I met in Tunis, barely 928 people are looked after by the UN agency as “persons of concern” in the country, and it is clear refugees are instead now moving through the chaos that Libya has descended into instead, a longer and far more perilous crossing. Instead, the issue is the thousands of mainly young and ambitious Tunisian men who seek to leave Tunisia for Europe’s shores as economic migrants.

I met with fishermen, port officials, and the people who take the boats. No-one is walking around wearing T-shirts with “I am a people trafficker” on them; the informality of the sector is the problem in regulating it. A passage on a boat costs about 1,500 Tunisian Dinar, about £500, and a full boat and successful night’s crossing is worth about five months’ wages to a fisherman. The economics are inescapable. 

In the part of Tunisia where I was, almost every family has at least one member in Italy or France. But it is not just pressure to go; there is little to stay for. According to Tunisia’s National Institute for Statistics, unemployment among its 15 to 24-year-old men was officially 37.6 per cent in 2012, with the position thought to have deteriorated since. 

I hate the demonisation of migrants that we have seen from some politicians and commentators. I like to think we are a bit more humane in Scotland, but perhaps I’m basing it too much on personal experience.

In 1979, my dad, like many Scots, was made redundant and had to take a job in Saudi Arabia where we spent the next eight years, as migrants. There’s barely a single Scottish family that didn’t grow up sending The Broons or Oor Wullie Annual to far-flung loved ones, economic migrants all, in Canada, Australia, New Zealand or elsewhere. Obviously, refugees are fleeing immediate harm and we need to find ways to make them safe, but we also need to find a better way to deal with migrants, as the economics are simply too strong. No amount of razor wire, gunboats or red tape will stop people trying to better themselves. 

Sadly, it is exactly the gunboats and razor wire approach the EU is taking. Operation Mare Nostrum was a joint EU, Italian-led operation to save people at sea, superseded by Operation Triton, which has just this week been replaced with Operation Sophia – named after the Goddess of Wisdom – but I’m not convinced we will see much wisdom on the ground and in the seas. And we need to get to grips with this, because if we think we have a problem now we’re really not looking ahead.

According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), barely 110,480 people arrived in the EU by sea in 2015, overwhelmingly to Greece and Italy. Let’s get real: across the EU these numbers are manageable. But it is only going to get worse as climate change wreaks havoc in sub-Saharan and North Africa. Just this week the World Bank and IMF said in a joint report that “large-scale migration from poor countries to richer regions of the world will be a permanent feature of the global economy for decades to come”. 

If the EU does not invest in the economies and stability of our nearest neighbours we can hardly blame people for voting with their feet. 

Alyn Smith is an SNP MEP, and is a full member of the Foreign Affairs Committee.