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Deterrent by drowning: Mediterranean tragedy is official policy

By Dave Stockton and KD Tait

22 April 2015

Once again, the seas surrounding Fortress Europe run red with the blood of migrants. The mass drowning of 900 migrants in the Mediterranean is the result of the European leaders’ criminal policy of discouraging immigration by letting desperate people die.

Only 28 people were rescued from a boat that capsized 130 miles off the Libyan coast, trapping up to 950, including 200 women and children in the hold.

The route across the Mediterranean is the most hazardous passage in the world for refugees fleeing war and poverty. Since the beginning of 2015 at least 1,700 people have died making the journey – 50 times higher than for the same period last year.

The conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, prolonged where they are not started outright by our rulers, have provoked the largest refugee disaster since the Second World War. Amnesty International reports that some 57 million people have been forced to flee their homes in the last year – an increase of six million on 2012.

And Justin Forsyth of Save The Children, has commented:

“The scale of what is happening in the Mediterranean isn’t an accident, it’s a direct result of our policy. How many more innocent children and their families must die before our leaders act?”

This is no hyperbole. The sharp rise in deaths is a direct result of the scrapping of Italy’s Mare Nostrum search and rescue mission, which saved the lives of around 150,000 refugees in one year.


Faced with the inevitable result of a policy of letting people drown, the response of European leaders is to blame the human trafficking networks who charge thousands of pounds to smuggle people between Turkey and North Africa and the Greek and Italian islands.

Ruthless and unscrupulous the people traffickers may be, but they are only a symptom not the cause: millions of people are desperate to flee the consequences of European imperialist policy which has brought poverty, famine and war to swathes of the Middle East and Africa.

A Downing Street spokesperson for David Cameron reported that he had spoken to the prime ministers of Italy and Malta:

“All three leaders agreed that the criminal networks behind human traffickers were primarily to blame for this tragedy and that the highest priority had to be action to disrupt their activities.”

The highest priority should surely be placed on saving the lives of people driven to desperate measures by consequences beyond their control. This abdication of responsibility only exposes the reprehensible moral bankruptcy of our leaders.

And there can be no doubt that it is these leaders of the European Union who are responsible. David Cameron in particular is responsible several times over.

He is an enthusiastic supporter of  the  “humanitarian interventions”  in countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and in Africa, Somalia, South Sudan, Chad and Libya. The purpose of these interventions is to secure the economic privileges of former European colonial powers in these countries – and the result is humanitarian disasters that have driven tens of thousands to seek refuge in Europe.

Contrary to the racist myths about ‘swarms’ of migrants ‘flooding’ Europe, the vast majority of migrants never make it to the Mediterranean. They end up in neighbouring countries, herded in disease ridden concentration camps with little access to sanitation, healthcare or any prospect for returning home.

And as for those stigmatised as merely  “economic migrants” the responsibility lies with the economic system and those who profit from and defend it. The capitalist ‘success story’ and the neoliberal policies imposed by the IMF have robbed workers and small farmers, destroyed their lands and denied them an income they can survive and prosper on. The vast wealth that is stolen from the working class and peasantry of Africa and the Middle East is the basis of Europe’s continued prosperity.


The policy of ‘Fortress Europe’ presents the human consequences of Europe’s imperialist foreign policy as people to be feared and kept out. The remorseless tightening of the UK and EU’s racist immigration laws deny those fleeing war, oppression and miserable poverty their basic human right of asylum and the right to work. Tory Tabloids like the Sun, the Mail and the Express stoke up fear and hostility to migrants on a daily basis.

Britain is not only responsible for creating the conditions which force migrants to make the perilous journey to the relative safety of Europe, but it refuses to take any responsibility for its actions and actively seeks to make access to Europe as difficult as possible.

Under British pressure, Italy’s Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation was scrapped last October. Italy is undergoing a savage austerity regime imposed by the European Central Bank and the EU Commission. It complained that no other European State was helping foot the €9m (£6.5m) monthly bill – a small price to pay for saving human lives.

Consistent with a policy of repelling rather than assisting refugees, Mare Nostrum was replaced with the EU-run Operation Triton, on a third of the budget, fewer vessels and less manpower – and a mandate to patrol the EU’s maritime borders to act as frontier protection rather than search and rescue.

The results are exactly those predicted, if not necessarily desired by our rulers. The number of migrants seeking to cross continues to rise and the number of bodies washing up on Europe’s shores rises inexorably with it. Last year more than 3,000 died. This year more than 1,500 have perished, and the summer migration ‘season’ has only just begun.

This outcome was predicted by all the experts and people involved.  Yet British ministers were in the vanguard of those arguing for the change in the new systems mission statement.

The callous logic of our ruling class was shamelessly spelled out in the House of Lords by Foreign Office Minister Lady Anelay: “We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean,” she said, adding that the government believed there was “an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths”.

In October 2014 Home Secretary Theresa May went further stating that removal of the rescue ships would prove a deterrent for would-be migrants. May hailed the EU’s decisions on “the prompt withdrawal of the Mare Nostrum operation … and for all member states to comply fully with their obligations under EU migration and asylum [policies].”

That the leaders of an advanced and so-called civilised nation like Britain can brazenly express such contempt for human life is the result of the racism towards migrants and refugees promoted by the media and politicians. The permeation of this racism throughout society and its normalisation by politicians breeds an indifference to the terrible fate of refugees. This indifference means the toleration of a crime against humanity that our government is actively complicit in.

The racist propaganda of the ruling class presents refugees and migrants as parasites and “cockroaches”. The refugees must be kept out in order to preserve the social welfare and employment of Europeans – the very same welfare states that our governments are trying to destroy. This propaganda means people accept the need for anti-immigrant policies, not because they are convinced racists but because they believe that we have no obligation or are unable to provide work, shelter and a decent life for all.

Still they persist

The EU leaders, including David Cameron, will meet in Brussels on 23 April to consider a 10 point plan in response to the latest disaster. Far from reversing a policy which is literally consigning thousands to a terrible death, the published resolution promotes more of the same.

In addition, it suggests seeking a military mandate to seize and destroy people-smugglers’ boats, tracing and investigating their funds, sending extra teams to vet asylum seekers in Italy and Greece, with powers to speed up the return of failed applicants.

In short, despite the terrible scenes in Lampedusa, Malta, Sicily and Rhodes, our rulers are determined to pursue their Fortress Europe policy as well as their “anti-terrorist” bombing sprees in Africa and the Middle East.

Ed Miliband – despite Labour’s racist rhetoric on immigration in Britain – has criticised Cameron’s policy in the Mediterranean and several times called for the reinstatement of Mare Nostrum, whose abandonment Labour opposed in October. At PMQs then he stated: “On immigration [Cameron’s] government combines callousness with incompetence. They don’t show basic humanity and say rescuing drowning people is a pull factor for immigration.”

Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper after the recent tragedy repeated :

“Reports that the British Government played a leading role in ending search and rescue last year are deeply troubling.  We have a humanitarian crisis on Europe’s southern shores and the terrible sight of children’s bodies being carried out of the waves should shame governments into realising that this response is still painfully weak. A bit of additional funding for operation Triton is no replacement for a properly-funded EU search and rescue operation. That is what is needed.”

Tear down the walls

Rescuing those in peril on the high seas is an elementary human duty and those who abandon their responsibility deserve to be branded with infamy. But the murderous policies of our rulers are dictated by the logic of the system which they uphold.

The exploitation of Africa and the Middle East by the imperialist great powers and the wars they wage to protect their ‘right’ to exploit these countries are the underlying causes of the humanitarian disaster unfolding on Europe’s southern shores.

We need to take urgent action to address both the immediate symptoms of the crisis and struggle to overcome the underlying causes. The working class must reject the divisive propaganda of the ruling class and fight for measures which defend the common interests of workers of all lands – interests which are irreconcilably opposed to those of the minority class of exploiters.

We need to open the borders of the EU to all who seek asylum or work within it. We need to withdraw all EU, US and Nato military bases from the Middle East and Africa. We need to tear down the walls and transform Fortress Europe into Refuge Europe.

However, providing refuge does not solve the root causes of the problem – the fact that Europe and North America have hampered the development of entire continents by the super-exploitation of their natural resources and labour. We also need to fight for the provision of massive economic aid – or rather, compensation – without strings for the peoples that we have exploited for centuries. Our aim must be to help the workers and farmers of these countries to attain the standards of life that Europeans take for granted.

While we can limit the excesses of capitalist exploitation and should fight for genuine humanitarian assistance, the ravages of capitalism cannot be overcome by using the same capitalist methods. The only way to achieve a permanent end to the exploitation of Africa is to overthrow the political and economic system that allows the European ruling class to carry out that exploitation.

That means advancing across the continent the struggle for a new Europe, a Europe of sanctuary, social solidarity and socialist revolution, and to create, not only here but across the world, a society where all production, education and culture is produced in the interests of the many, not the few.

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