About 800 refugees were drowned in the Mediterranean on April 18 when a boat carrying them from Libya, and trying to reach the south of Italy, capsized. Just three days earlier, more than 400 people drowned when another boat on the same route sank.
Refugee deaths in the Mediterranean are rising sharply. “According to the UN and the International Organisation for Migration, 1,776 people are dead or missing so far this year, compared with 56 for the same period last year,” the April 24 Guardian reported.
Two factors are key to this dramatic rise in deaths by drowning. One is the rise in the number of refugees trying to reach Europe. This is mainly the result of the deteriorating situation in Syria and Libya.
In Syria, the death toll from the four-year civil war is 300,000. By 2013, more than 3 million people had already fled the country.
Furthermore, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre said that in December, there were at least 7.6 million internally displaced people in Syria, suggesting large numbers of refugees will continue leaving the country.
Libya has long been a transit country for refugees and undocumented migrants, particularly from Sub-Saharan Africa. Under the regime of former dictator Muammar Gaddafi, Libya's oil-rich economy absorbed many Sub-Sahara African migrants and refugees.
Some reconciled themselves to settling there permanently, while others retained the dream of reaching Europe, seeking work in Libya in the meantime.
In 2011, the EU spearheaded a military intervention to overthrow Gaddafi that combined airstrikes with military support to anti-government militias. However, Gaddafi's dictatorship was replaced with a breakdown in civil order and permanent conflict between rival militias.
Libya now has two governments one of which has international recognition but neither of which controls even half the country.
Not only has this created general insecurity and a hugely shrunken economy: it has unleashed violent racism against Sub-Sahara Africans. The militias that substitute for state authority are the main perpetrators.
The terrorist group that calls itself “the Islamic State” broadcast its presence in Libya this year by filming mass decapitations of Ethiopian Christians. This makes remaining in Libya even less viable for migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa.
The second factor is the closing of Europe's borders. Immigrant-bashing has long been a staple of mainstream politicians in Europe, as in other Western countries. This has worsened since the Great Financial Crisis of 2007. As unemployment and homelessness grew, so did the need for scapegoats.
The growing electoral threat to established parties from the far-right has fuelled this scapegoating of refugees and migrants.
Britain has slashed the rate of approving Syrian asylum claims since the Syrian Civil War began. Land crossings into Spain, Greece and eastern Europe have been sealed, forcing refugees onto boats. Furthermore, refusal by EU governments to provide funds led the Italian Navy to stop its search and rescue program, Operation Mare Nostrum, at the end of last year.
Between October 2013 and last December, Mare Nostrum saved the lives of more than 168,000 migrants, Newsweek said on April 23. In language echoing that of their Australian counterparts, EU politicians argued that the search and rescue operation was a “pull factor”, encouraging refugees to get on boats.
Operation Mare Nostrum was replaced with Operation Triton, a cheaper, EU-funded operation focussed more on interdiction than search and rescue.
“The argument that Italy’s Mare Nostrum operation served as a 'pull factor' has not been vindicated,” the Guardian said. “According to [European border-control agency] Frontex, in the first three months after Triton replaced Mare Nostrum, the flow of migrants increased 160%.”
The latest tragedy has not silenced the virulent anti-refugee voices in the European establishment.
On April 17, Katie Hopkins, right-wing columnist in the British Murdoch tabloid, the Sun, called for “gun boats not rescue boats” to be sent to meet refugees, who she described as “cockroaches” and “feral humans”.
Tellingly, she summed up her call for European governments to take a more violent approach to refugees by urging them to follow Australia's example.
Australian PM Tony Abbott could not resist doing the same. “The only way you can stop the deaths is in fact to stop the boats,” he said on April 21.
“That’s why it is so urgent that the countries of Europe adopt very strong policies that will end the people smuggling trade across the Mediterranean.”
However, foreign minister Julie Bishop conceded this may not be possible.
“I’m very conscious of the fact that the geographic circumstances are very different between Europe and Australia,” she said in Berlin on April 22.
Ironically, Australia's anti-refugee policies are based on the fact that only a tiny fraction of the number of refugees trying to reach Europe attempt to travel to Australia.
With refugees arriving in Europe in the hundreds of thousands, there would not be prison space for an Australian-style regime of mandatory indefinite detention, even across Europe. The high numbers involved would also make the Australian approach of bribing poor countries' governments to house refugee prison camps impossible.
Furthermore, the EU has stronger human rights safeguards than Australia. “Australia is not part of any regional human rights system, and some of what it is doing would be ruled illegal under the European Convention on Human Rights,” Jane McAdam, an international refugee law expert at the University of New South Wales, told AFP on April 20.
Despite the rise of racism in European politics, more than 200,000 people have signed a petition calling for the Sun to sack Hopkins.
However, when EU leaders gathered in Brussels to discuss the crisis on April 22 their rhetoric had an Australian flavour: feigned concern about stopping deaths at sea, while rejecting raising refugee intake or resourcing search and rescue, and colourful denunciations of people smugglers.
Some people smugglers are ruthless criminals who, for example by overloading boats, increase the risks refugees face. But it is not people smugglers who force people to flee.
The EU summit, however, was focussed on declaring a “war on people smugglers”. One of the more outlandish proposals to come out of the EU leaders' meeting was for military strikes on Libyan ports to destroy boats which may be used to carry refugees.
“A draft summit statement said the aim was to destroy the vessels before they depart, suggesting European forces would need to take to the beaches and ports of Libya,” the Guardian said.
The leaders would need to decide whether military action was possible, said a senior EU diplomat. Apache helicopter gunships attacking smugglers’ vessels from a range of up to 2km would be the optimal way to operate, diplomatic sources said, arguing against 'boots on the ground'.”
A spokesperson for the National Salvation Government (the Libyan government without Western recognition) told the BBC on April 23 that his militias would resist any EU military incursions.
It was perhaps not surprising then that Amnesty International and the UN both criticised European leaders for favouring military solutions over solutions that might actually work.