The Mediterranean, for most Scots, means summer holidays, a relaxing time with family and friends, sun, sea and sangria.
Published in The Herald 26 March 2015
It is not known as a graveyard. But it is now the site of a terrible and growing humanitarian crisis, a maritime cemetery for refugees where more than 1,750 people have perished since the start of the year alone and an estimated 4000 (though nobody knows for sure) last year. This is going to get worse unless we change our policies.
This time exactly a week ago, on Sunday morning, a boat carrying 700 migrants capsized 90 miles north of the Libyan shore after being approached by a Portuguese vessel, just days after another shipwreck in the area claimed 400 lives. The Mediterranean is by far the world's deadliest migrant sea crossing, claiming a proven 3,419 of the 4,272 refugee fatalities reported globally in 2014.
Sitting in Scotland, our far north westerly corner of the EU's territory, we could be better placed than many to say this has nothing to do with us. It would certainly be easier. But we have not. My constituency mailbox has been full for many months with Scots telling me to become involved. Earlier this week I organised a public, open letter from Scotland to the EU Presidents calling for emergency action to prioritise search-and-rescue operations. The response we received from Scotland's charities, civic society, politicians and the general public was overwhelming. Scotland calls for action and calls for it now. You can still sign up at www.alynsmith.eu/frontex and I would be glad of your support.
Migrants and refugees fleeing war zones and hardship is not a new phenomenon - people from northern Africa and the Middle East have long sought shelter in Europe. What is new, however, is the massive increase in numbers, largely driven by conflict in Africa and the Middle East. With ongoing turmoil in Iraq, Syria, Libya and others this is only going to increase further.
The European response has been woefully inadequate. The numbers of people are significant, but we could cope. Instead, the European states have left it as a local problem for individual states (chiefly Italy, Spain, Greece, Malta and Cyprus) to cope with. And to an extent they have, but I do not think it should be just their problem. The Italian led search-and-rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, saved more than 100,000 people in 12 months but was ended because it was too expensive and other member states were unwilling to help fund it. The replacement, Operation Triton, is run by Frontex, the EU border patrol agency, but has no search-and-rescue priority, Operation Triton was deficient from the start and there were widespread warnings of more people dying at sea.
We are also seeing an increase in the numbers of unscrupulous human smugglers ready to put hundreds of people aboard unseaworthy ships destined for Europe if they are lucky, or the seabed if not. On the eve of the emergency EU summit on migration in Brussels this week, Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, said the country was "at war" with smugglers and Italy has indeed, where they have been able to, prosecuted and strongly punished those smugglers they have caught. But there are plenty more, we must fight smugglers who have taken advantage of lawlessness in Libya and elsewhere and operate with little fear of prosecution.
The people who board these ships are prepared to pay significant sums of cash to risk their lives and sometimes the lives of their children because they believe that whatever happens on that journey cannot possibly be any worse than the violence and oppression they experience in their home countries. They believe the dangers they are fleeing from constitute a far greater threat than the risk of drowning at sea. This is simply unimaginable hardship; all these people want is to have a better life and we cannot blame them for it.
Many Scots are wondering how much longer Europe's states can ignore the tragedy unfolding on its doorstep while politicians and policy-makers weigh up the political and economic cost of saving lives at sea and worry about the impact on their own immigration and asylum statistics.
I reject this cold calculation. We do indeed need to take a long hard look at immigration and asylum policies, but rescuing people at sea should not be viewed as an optional bothersome financial burden. It is our obligation, driven by human decency and human compassion and each EU member state should share in that effort.
At barely 9 million euros a month, it would cost 0.0008% of the EU's budget to reinstate the Mare Nostrum programme which saved so many lives. To govern is to choose, and I hope that Europe's leaders will prioritise search and rescue.
Sadly, during the EU's extraordinary summit last Thursday Scotland was represented by David Cameron, and I have no faith that the UK line was what Scotland wants to see. The pitch of the debate in the UK is I think objectively different to the debate in Scotland. I think Scotland, independent, would be more in tune with our Nordic neighbours, who have a demonstrably better record in contributing to multinational humanitarian efforts and in providing a safe haven to those who need one. I think this reflects a pretty sinister tone to the UK debate on this, a facet of the wider immigration debate itself. The UK discussion has been characterised by hard hearted, nasty, cruel rhetoric that make these islands look bad. Just this week the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, hit out after some odious pundit referred to Mediterranean refugees as "cockroaches". Even former politician, but presumably still Tory, Michael Portillo said this week that he would rather see the refugees "dumped back on beaches in Libya" ignoring that the beaches are ISIS controlled after the UK and others bombed the country into seven shades of chaos. The UK is getting us noticed, and not in a good way. I think Scotland wants to see better, more ambitious action from the EU as a whole.
Sadly, the eventual EU agreement was pretty thin gruel, and I fear will prove inadequate. There was some progress, with a 10-point plan agreed including reinforcement of the Frontex joint operations and an increase to funding - yet without substantially prioritising search-and-rescue operations Frontex's main role is to monitor and protect external borders. If they come upon a boat in distress they should assist, but they are not out there actively looking for them.
The EU will also boost efforts to capture and destroy the smugglers' boats, but I am not convinced this will deliver much. In the absence of legal channels for safe migration people will continue to attempt to cross the sea. Also discussed in the summit was an EU wide voluntary pilot project on resettlement. But the clue is in the name, it is and will remain a voluntary scheme to resettle at least 5,000 refugees to other EU states, where the United Nations estimates 36,000 have made the voyage so far this year.
In a move that smacks more of PR than policy, the UK promised to send three ships and three helicopters to assist. That is welcome, of course, but is hardly a long term solution given, according to Amnesty International, that the UK in 2014 accepted barely 143 Syrian refugees where Germany took 30,000 - and the UK was in the vanguard of calls to leave Mare Nostrum as an Italian only affair.
But it is all the more poignant because actually, given political will, saving people at sea is the easy part. It is all the more shaming we have not found that political will. But it is the next stage of the discussion that has hamstrung efforts. If the refugees survive, what should we do with them and who should be responsible for paying for them? At the nub of this question is the extent to which we (as in, we, Europeans) view this as a common problem to be shared amongst the EU states. This is the next big question facing the EU as a whole, and we have not yet found an adequate answer. I am uneasy at the idea of a common asylum policy across the EU member states, but I am even more uneasy that the present situation allows member states to palm the responsibility for some of the world's most vulnerable onto other states and absolve themselves of any responsibility.
A long-term solution, of course, is to use the collective weight of the EU to find political solutions to the ongoing conflagrations in Libya, Iraq, and Syria as well as violence and poverty in sub-Saharan Africa. That might take a while. So in the meantime we need, as a community of 28 member states, to ensure that no member state is left with an impossible burden. Saving people at sea is not an optional extra, and finding a sustainable solution to how to look after those survivors is well within our powers, surely. Scotland might be far away from the shores of the Med, but we are involved in that discussion, and I think have a different view to those who presently represent us.