The owl and the pussycat 2.

After Libya collapsed, power passed to the hands of various militia groups.[1] Politics soon merged with crime. Italian criminal organizations—the Mafia—struck a deal with many of the militia commanders to move people from Libya to Italy. Some 31 percent are refugees from the civil war in Syria. Some are refugees from Iraq, either from the earlier fighting following the American invasion or from the more recent disaster following the rise of ISIS. Most are “economic refugees” from the failed or failing states of Sahelian Africa. In 2014, about 170,000 illegal immigrants paid an estimated $170 million to reach Europe from Libya.

Responsibility for dealing with this problem fell first to the Italians. After 300 migrants drowned near the island of Lampedusa in October 2013, the Italian Navy and Coast Guard launched Operation “Mare Nostrum.”  Italian vessels collected about 140,000 migrants during 2014. The death toll fell from 300 in October 2013 to 56 in April 2014.

While this might be regarded as a remarkable humanitarian achievement, not everyone was best pleased. “Mare Nostrum” (“Our Sea”) cost almost $10 million a month at a time when Italy was trying to fend off recession and imposing a degree of budget austerity. Operation “Mare Nostrum” started to look like Operation “Tasse Nostrum” (“Our Taxes”). Northern Europeans weren’t happy with Italy serving as an open door for illegal immigrants. The Navy landed the immigrants in mainland Italy. Most of them then continued their search for better lives by heading for Northern Europe.[2] Britain argued that “Mare Nostrum” created a kind of insurance policy for the migrants: the boats might not be sea-worthy, but the captains could always hunt up a rescue ship soon after leaving port. Once they were “rescued,” the migrants were put ashore in a country that maintained no serious watch over their further movements. Inevitably, they flooded North. These arguments resonated with other EU countries. When the Italian government asked the European Union for financial assistance, the EU called on the Italians to stop giving the immigrants a free lift. “Mare Nostrum” ended with the return of winter weather to the Mediterranean.

In place of “Mare Nostrum,” the EU both strengthened its controls on land border and launched “Operation Triton.” “Triton” restricted the rescue zone of naval patrols to within 30 miles of the Italian coast. “Make it more dangerous. That’ll stop them.”   It didn’t.

By early 2015, perhaps as many as a million potential immigrants were waiting in Libya to cross the Mediterranean to Italy. In economic terms, Demand vastly outstrips Supply. There are critical shortages of vessels, crews, and competent captains. Older and smaller vessels are used, crewed by men working beyond their skill-level, and packed to the gun-whales with passengers. A ticket on one of these death traps has risen from $1,000 in 2014 to $2,000 today.

Over-loaded and under-ballasted vessels are top heavy. Even passenger movements can lead to a capsizing, but so can heavy seas or a collision with another vessel or taking on water. In the first four months of 2015, an estimated 1,750 people drowned from the sinking of boats carrying illegal immigrants from North Africa to Europe.

The appalling death-toll caused an up-roar and a belated response from the EU. Two realities present themselves. First, while an aging Europe needs immigrants, the cultural resistance to increased diversity is very strong. Second, the core problem here is the failure of many African states to provide security and prosperity to their citizens. Even taking the risks of crossing the Sahara, then crossing the Mediterranean seems preferable.

[1] “Europe’s migrant crisis,” The Week, 8 May 2015, p. 11.

[2] A further 45,000 reached Europe by other routes.

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