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Sunday 1 October 2023 Dublin: 17°C
AP/Press Association Images
To stop drownings, Europe should ferry across migrants itself
I am a believer in tight border security, but I cannot turn a blind eye wanton waste of life in the Mediterranean.

I AM A believer in tight border security. I do not believe that Europe should have an open door to all those who wish to come here for economic reasons, though we do have responsibilities in law towards those fleeing for their lives. I believe there is an economic boon to be had from taking in skilled workers for our economic benefit. I am shamelessly self-centred and nationalistic about it. You have to look out for number one in this world.

There is a difference, however, between looking out for yourself first and ignoring the plight of others in trouble. In the wake of the latest round of mass drownings in the Mediterranean there have been those who say, “It’s their choice to get on a boat and take that risk”. At some deep philosophical level you might be right. Here in the real world, however, the result of that choice is bodies of people from the poorest continent in the world washing up on the shores of the richest.

It is incumbent upon us as moral and decent human beings to try and do something about this wanton waste of life.

They’re just being rational economic actors – the same as Irish hitting the road elsewhere

Migrants will attempt to reach Europe whether we like it or not. The vast wealth of the EU in comparison to even the relatively most salubrious parts of Africa is a magnetic force attracting those who see it as a land of opportunity. I don’t begrudge migrants wanting to get here: they’re just being rational economic actors, the same as Irish hitting the road elsewhere when hard economic times struck. I think that we in Europe have encouraged, or failed to discourage, mass immigration through the hand-wringing vacillation that seems our political speciality.

European countries are not willing to fully take responsibility for the Mediterranean situation. We talk about “the EU”, but it’s not a country. There are 28 member states, but very few willing to take practical steps until shamefaced by tragedy.

The Italians were shouldering a huge burden until last year with Operation Mare Nostrum, so named for the ancient Roman term for the Med as “Our Sea”, launched after a mass drowning in October 2013. They had three warships and various coast guard ships on patrol at all times and claim to have rescued more than 150,000 people and arrested 330 smugglers.

Critics of the operation say that it only encouraged smugglers, who factored the Italian navy into their business plan and only included enough fuel to get a boat into the patrol zone to await rescue. The operation was closed down last October under political pressure, and now the European border agency Frontex runs a much smaller Operation Triton, with about a third of the budget and a much smaller patrol zone.

Whether by coincidence or not, the level of drownings this year has shot up tenfold despite the number of crossings remaining relatively steady.

European countries have refused to share the burden 

The problems of preventing deaths and then of dealing with migrants when they make it across are many. Patrolling the Mediterranean is expensive and can be unreliable. Attacking the people smugglers the same way that Somali pirates were put out of operation, with European helicopters strafing their coastal bases and boats at anchor, is also risky. North Africa is enough of a stirred beehive, and smugglers might just put more people onto fewer, barely serviceable boats.

European countries, even after the summit hastily thrown together in the wake of recent drownings, have refused to share the burden of migrants who do arrive. Under the Dublin regulation it is the responsibility of the country migrants land in to take care of and process them, or turn them around. This leaves the economically hard pressed Italy, Spain and Greece to carry the can. Of the more than 600,000 claiming asylum in Europe last year, they handled the vast bulk – with one or two exceptions, like Germany taking in 41,000 and Sweden 31,000.

That might suit us here in Ireland to keep down the numbers who might otherwise be passed through to us to process if we had European burden sharing to proportionally divvy up the migrants. This is a narrow view that contributes to the paralysis in dealing with the issue in the Med.

We need to be pragmatic. I don’t believe that a majority of those coming to our shores seeking asylum are genuine and not economic migrants. We need to speedily weed them out and turn them away, and provide a safe harbour for those genuinely fleeing persecution about whom we have responsibilities in international law.

What we need to do most of all is prevent the drownings.

Processing migrants on the African side?

The Australian solution of turning back any migrants, no matter their situation, and sending them to nearby impoverished island nations has stemmed the tide of migrants taking a boat to the country. It has come at a deep cost to Australia’s international reputation, and in any event I’m not aware of too many suitable countries around the Med who could be persuaded to take diverted migrants in return for development aid.

The European Court of Human Rights has also ruled that European nations are obliged to give migrants a fair shot at entering into their country, something the Australians don’t have to worry about. (I know there are those spitting at the name of that court, but it’s probably worth remembering that it’s the same one that helped push along laws on small matters like criminalising marital rape and decriminalising homosexuality. It cuts both ways.)

A suggestion being bandied around for a few years now that has seen a revitalisation is for Europe to process migrants on the African side. There are three major difficulties facing this option, though it is ultimately perhaps the best one available if they can be worked through. Firstly, Europe would have to find a country that could host processing centres capable of handling anywhere from 600,000 to over a million people a year. Finding a suitable spot on the coast of North Africa is not straightforward.

Secondly, Europe would have to man and run these places with everything from housing to medical treatment and policing. Even the notion of running “camps” sends an imperceptible shiver down the spine, and these would likely become permanent fixtures. There is a near inexhaustible line of people queuing up to try their luck at getting to Europe.

Thirdly, if you ran processing camps on the far side then you would need European countries to agree to divvy up the responsibility for both running it and then taking in those who have successful asylum applications.

We must do something practical to prevent people from dying

The advantage is that it is a practical solution to a problem that is not going away. These people need to be housed and fed when they get to Europe anyway. Such a processing facility – or minor city, rather – would concentrate it into one place where folks can’t just hop the fence and be away into the European hinterland.

Successful asylum seekers could hop on a proper boat and be brought across to Europe. The unsuccessful ones could be turned away.

It wouldn’t be pretty. But it’d be a lot less unedifying than seeing people drown in the Mediterranean. If they’re coming anyway, and we purport to be decent people, then we must do something practical to prevent the drownings.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman on columnist for You can follow him on Twitter here.

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