The latest tragedy in the Mediterranean, where a fishing ship smuggling possibly as many as 600 people capsized on Wednesday with about 200 presumed dead, is a portrait in miniature of the mess of policy mistakes, unintended consequences, and human folly that’s turning the Mare Nostrum into a graveyard. (A mark of how bad things are: 200 deaths can be considered “a portrait in miniature”.)
According to the WSJ, many of those aboard the ship came from Syria. For four years, the West has refused and/or been unable to do anything about the plight of that war-torn country, and no wonder people are fleeing it. Meanwhile, the port of immediate departure was in Libya, where the West—at the urging of many European nations—did intervene, but without any intention to stick around or plan to deal with the aftermath. Even as it becomes increasingly clear that Libya’s disorder is at the root of the current immigration crisis, Europe has not the foggiest clue how to fix things there.
For the short period of time during which they were on the fishing boat, the passengers appear to have suffered horrific but sadly unsurprising abuse at the hands of the smugglers they’d each paid thousands of dollars to. The tragedy was precipitated when an Irish patrol vessel came into sight, and those aboard the fishing boat rushed toward the side of the boat, causing the boat to capsize.
The passengers who were rescued were only 75 miles off the coast of Libya, less than halfway to the first bit of Italian territory in the Med, the island of Lampedusa, which itself lies twice as far again from Sicily. Yet the rescued migrants were taken to Europe, not turned back. On the one hand, this is an understandable humanitarian reaction, given what these people must have been through. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that this reaction creates inducement in and of itself for people to take such risks, and indeed, previous capsizes are though to have been caused when people rush to get “caught” by patrol ships.
Once ashore, though, while conditions are better than in Syria, the refugees face a legal and cultural morass that’s helpful to no one—not the natives, nor the immigrants. European law makes it very difficult to expel a refugee, or even someone claiming refugee status (immigrants from poor African countries such as the Gambia, fleeing wretched economic conditions but not a war or natural disaster are technically migrants, not refugees, even though most Westerners would see the conditions they’re escaping as deeply miserable).
But while the newcomers are not sent back, Europe’s welfare states are nevetheless not set up, legally and culturally, to accept large numbers of immigrants. Nor are European economies by and large dynamic enough to provide employment for large numbers of new peoples. While many Europeans are personally welcoming, its getting harder to deny that immigration issues are driving the growth of extremist parties. Brussels has failed to make headway on mandatory redistribution (which would almost certainly inflame nativist feelings), while Italy and Greece, the main countries of first arrival, buckle under the strain.
So why hasn’t something been done? Real change—change big enough to address the underlying problems—would be a slaughterhouse of sacred cows. Depending on the solution(s) they adopted, European leaders would have to address the failings of the social welfare state, their attitudes toward intervention in North Africa and the Middle East, P.C. pieties about immigration, and/or freedom of movement within the European Union.
Yet something nevertheless must be done. While pieties are mouthed, hands are wrung, and nothing is done, hundreds will die and thousands suffer this year. Consider the scale of this latest tragedy: 200 people is roughly the passenger capacity of an Airbus A300. If one of those had gone down in the Mediterranean, it would dominate the news for a week; if one was crashing every few weeks or so for over a year, the sense of crisis would be overwhelming. How long can Europe avoid making hard choices while people die?