June 12, 2014

Exodus without end

By now, the European Union must be very worried that the deluge of boat people making it to Italy shows no sign of abating. In fact, the alarming and exponential acceleration in refugee numbers this year should ring alarm bells even in the minds of the most liberal and pro-immigrant left wingers in Europe. Leaving the humanitarian crisis aside for a moment, the flood of people poses a serious security risk; many of them come from countries that are flush with extremists. 

In just one 24 hour period last month, 3000 refugees reached Italy. So far this year, nearly 40,000 migrants have done so –the number for the whole of last year was 43,000.  Hundreds, if not thousands, have died making the crossing, usually heading usually for the island of Lampedusa or the coast of Sicily. Thousands more will cross over in summer, as the weather improves; around 300,000 wannabe migrants are said to be waiting in Libya, Tunisia and elsewhere- a future described by an observer as ‘an exodus without end’.

To add to the mess, Libya is acting tough and threatening to flood the Mediterranean with even more boat people. Says Interior minister Salah Mazek: "I'm warning the world and Europe in particular – if they do not assume their responsibilities, Libya could facilitate the transit of this flood." By responsibilities, he means, of course, money for Libya.

Although many of the refugees are Egyptians, Syrians and Eritreans, West Africans, Somalis, Afghani, Bangladeshi and Pakistani refugees- or economic migrants, hard to tell which is which- make up sizeable numbers. They set off in rickety boats, paying anywhere between 1500-2500 USD for the passage (the higher amount gets you space on deck and perhaps a tarpaulin, 1500 consigns you to the hold and certain death if the dilapidated boat goes down), buying lifejacket facilities for 200 USD a piece (no money, no lifejacket), besides food, water (100 USD) and satellite phone use (200 USD). Everything has a price.

The ruthless ‘people smugglers’ make up to a million Euros on each leaky boat they put out- crammed to the bulwarks with migrants- on conditions that have been compared to the 19th century slave trade. And their margins are rising; for example, they are now saving on fuel, putting out boats with not enough fuel to make the crossing. Why? Because they expect the Italian navy to come and pick up the refugees. I doubt they care if those poor souls live or die anyway.

Europe has reason to be concerned. Some of these migrants- particularly asylum seekers- have, by now, spread out across countries like France and Germany, albeit in small numbers. The last three years may well have seen roughly a quarter of a million migrants pouring into Italy; it has to be assumed that a significant number of these will be released, after some kind of processing, into the EU. The pressures- economic, cultural and political- of this inundation will be severe. And the possibility that criminal gangs or terrorists will have used this human pipeline to infiltrate target societies is real. People coming from war torn countries pose particular problems, especially to countries like Germany that grant some refugee status.

Shipping has reason to be concerned too. Hundreds of human trafficking boats take to the water from the North African coast every year today. I am sure a bunch of guys is sitting in a cave somewhere trying to work out how easy it would be for a small boat laden with explosives to set out from the same shores- unregulated and chaotic as they are, thanks to the Arab Spring’s aftermath- and blow up a tanker or two in the confined Mediterranean. Repeat of the 2002-Limberg attack off Aden, you know.

There have been plots to do this before, including in the Straits of Gibraltar. And any sailor who has sailed in those waters will tell you how easy something like this would be and how easily maritime security can be compromised today in the Mediterranean because of the exodus without end. 


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