| 10°C Belfast

We shouldn't turn blind eye to tragic migrant deaths


Prime Minister David Cameron

Prime Minister David Cameron

AFP/Getty Images

Prime Minister David Cameron

It was widely suggested a fortnight ago that Katie Hopkins had "gone too far this time" with her comment in the Sun that the way to deal with migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean was to "send in the gunboats".

But what she said was not significantly different from Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi's statement at an EU summit last Thursday that member states should send warships to "capture and destroy" the vessels used by traffickers to ferry the migrants to Europe.

The Daily Telegraph reported that the union's 28 members had been "widely mobilised" in advance of the summit to approve a statement committing the EU "to undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers".

David Cameron pledged to contribute a force, including the Royal Navy's flagship, HMS Bulwark, both to help rescue the drowning and to "smash the gangs". He made clear that any migrants plucked by British ships from the sea would be unloaded at the nearest port - certainly not brought to Britain.

"We," he said, had already taken "our fair share" of refugees.

How a country which has rampaged around the world without so much as a by-your-leave and helped in the process to create the conditions which have given rise to the current exodus might calculate its "fair share", Cameron didn't explain.

Of course, Britain has been by no means alone in colonial adventurism. France, too, has done its fair share of looting the world. President Francois Hollande told the summit that his country would seek UN authority to use military force to "destroy these boats".

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini backed the idea of bombing raids, while insisting that this should not be construed as "military intervention".

If she lent an ear to the babble from Brussels, Hopkins must have clucked in satisfaction that, notwithstanding a continuing swirl of controversy around her remarks, she had rather been vindicated.

This will continue to be relevant, given that migrants heading for Europe are not going to go away. The International Organisation for Migrants estimates that, globally, there were 16.7 million refugees and 34 million internally displaced persons at the end of 2013.

The numbers have since been steadily growing. In the last four weeks, fighting in Yemen has displaced an estimated 150,000 people, while Ramadi in Anwar province in Iraq has been emptied of 114,000 people, bringing Iraq's total of displaced persons to around three million. Meanwhile, four million Syrians are living in unspeakable conditions in neighbouring countries. Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are among the top five countries from which the Mediterranean migrants have come. For those willing to look the facts in the face, there is a clear clue there to one of the root causes of the crisis.

There has been a fluster of seeming concern at the mass drownings of recent days. But the basic approach of European governments hasn't changed.

The promised boosting of the rescue effort will merely bring it back to the level of last autumn, prior to the abandonment of regular patrols looking out for stricken vessels. Cameron's government led the way in pushing a policy of leaving the drowning to drown.

Saving desperate souls floundering in the water would operate as a "pull factor", warned Foreign Office Minister Baroness Anelay, "encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous crossing".

But others, and others again, will continue to trek though devastated landscapes to mass at the shores of the Mediterranean, eyes fixed on the lands of relative plenty just over the horizon. Who's to suggest that they are not entitled, against all the odds and the perils in their way, so to aspire to a minimally decent existence for themselves and their families?

Who has the right to say, "No more room", slam the door and yell at them to go back where they came from?

EU leaders are adamant that the overwhelming majority of those who do make it to Europe will be sent back. They must "follow the law", says Cameron's government, apply for refugee status in the prescribed manner, then await a determination.

In 1646, one of the great men of English history, the Leveller John Lilburne, declared that, "The poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he."

This being so, he told Cromwell's army, the poorest he was in no way bound to follow rules laid down by the richest he.

The sentiment begs a wider application in today's globalised world. What's happening in the Mediterranean is not a disaster which we will soon be able to look back on with a shudder, the way we remember, say, the Indian Ocean tsunami of December 2004.

It is not a once-off, but the shape of things to come, the way the world will be. Unless, that is, in the interim, the world is turned upside down.

Belfast Telegraph