Mass Migration in the Med: A Clear Case of Cause and Effect

By Dan Cadman on April 23, 2015

Recently I wrote a blog about an alien smuggling incident in the Mediterranean Sea that resulted in the charge of murder being levied against some of the participants after they threw other participants off the boat to drown.

Since then, another massive tragedy unfolded in those waters when a vessel holding hundreds of migrants being smuggled capsized in international waters off Libya while en route to Europe. Only a few survived. The figures of the dead have ranged from 700 to 900; no one is certain how many were aboard to begin with. The Tunisian boat captain and his Syrian mate have been charged with negligent homicide by Italian authorities.

The shock waves were immediate: Italy and Greece, the two southern European countries most affected by such maritime smuggling, have been vocal in leveling the finger of blame at their northerly neighbors for not providing enough money and assistance this year to interdict all of the boats taking to sea, unlike in previous years. European Union officials said they had deliberately allowed interdiction efforts to dwindle because, in their assessment, picking up boatloads of intended migrants and then offloading them to the Italian island of Lampedusa or to Sicily or to ports in Greece had actually encouraged more migrants to attempt the venture since the EU was, in effect, ensuring completion and success of the smuggling. That is undoubtedly true.

What they clearly did not calculate in that assessment were a couple of things less readily quantifiable, but still significant. First, cutting back on interdiction does not in itself defeat the notion of success; in fact, the fewer official EU member coast guard cutters in the water, the greater the likelihood of landing without detection, after which smuggled migrants can turn themselves in after having touched European shores. Second, many of the migrants come from cultures with a decidedly different view toward life and destiny — one that says that basically everything is in God's hands. If one were to ask a migrant just before boarding of his chances for success or even survival, he might shrug and say, "God willing." This passive, even fatalistic, view is at strong variance with Western notions of free will and the importance of human agency in the unfolding of the world's events.

What EU officials in their calculations failed to grasp is that there is only one thing likely to make intended migrants sit up and take notice: inability to reach their destination. The only sure antidote to mass migration is rapid repatriation, or at least denial of landing. Yet, in both of the scenarios played out as EU "strategies" one can see no evidence of a recognition of that point, or any intent to frustrate the goal by ensuring that these migrants don't reach land. In the 1990s, after years of similar events off Florida's coastline, the U.S. developed its interdiction and landing denial capabilities, even using the naval base at Guantanamo to house migrants in large numbers. Similarly, Australia has dealt with its boat people crisis by negotiating with other nations to take them when interdicted by Australian naval and coast guard officials. Although in each case the governments involved were roundly criticized by migrant assistance groups, both actions were effective in abating, if not halting, the flows.

The BBC now reports that the EU has developed a 10-point plan in response to the crisis. If that plan doesn't include some recognition that the only thing that will alleviate the huge numbers of individuals putting themselves (and sometimes their minor children) at risk is to frustrate their goal of reaching Europe, then it's destined to failure.

Now, lest anyone suspect that I speak with smug American superiority about the ineffectual nature of the Europeans' response to this mass migration phenomenon, let me quash that. Any reasonably intelligent reader should have gotten more than a hint of deja vu between how things are going in the Med with our own government's mishandling of the surge of aliens who poured into the Rio Grande Valley of Texas last summer — just substitute the phrase "mass land migration" for "mass maritime migration".

By the way, that surge remains largely unabated, as my colleague Jessica Vaughan has recently pointed out, although one would hardly know it since major media outlets seem to be cooperating with the White House in dropping the "cone of silence" in the apparent hope that the public's attention deficit disorder will kick in and distract them from the fundamental reality that it is unabated, and for the same reason the EU's crisis continues: Without the will to repatriate, there is no reason to expect migrants to discontinue making their attempts, no matter what the peril.