January 27, 2015

Ghosts of the future

The European refugee crisis is out of control. The rest of the world has shown limited interest in it, though, although the new year has brought with it sensational images of coast guard officers boarding ‘ghost’ crewless ships to disable autopilots and locked in engines and stop the vessels heading for disaster with hundreds of refugees aboard.

The world should take more notice, though. For one, this not just an ‘African problem’ any longer- these asylum seekers are coming through Turkey now. But, more importantly, we need to pay attention because this crisis is a beginning; is showing us a sketch of what is yet to come. Desperate refugees will not be a black swan event in future; just wait until environmental migration is forced upon us. The migration that we see today- conflicted, violence ridden and tragic as it is- is nothing.

Figures from the UNHCR and the International Organisation for migration are compelling.  Three hundred and fifty thousand people crossed risky seas in decrepit boats last year. War torn Syria and Eritrea produced half of all asylum seekers; Libya, the Ukraine and Iraq were other big contributors. Then, almost three and a half thousand people died or went missing in the Mediterranean in 2014- a figure greater than the combined number of deaths seen in the previous three years.

Middle class Syrians are fleeing the country through Turkey. Human smugglers are charging them three times what the poorer asylum seekers pay from North Africa to make the voyage to Italy. These high rates allow gangs to buy larger- even if dilapidated- vessels that they are happy to abandon near western coastlines- the so called ‘ghost’ ships- with refugees aboard. This new modus operandi has increased in the last few months; the recent media spotlight on the livestock carrier Ezadeen and the ‘Blue Sky M’- abandoned by their crew with hundreds of refugees each near Italy- does not alter the fact that other cases have gone relatively unreported. Ships are bought at around 100,000 USD a pop, but the smugglers are making around 5 million dollars a trip, so abandoning ships is well worth it.

The UNHCR describes the Mediterranean crossing from the Middle East and Africa to Europe as “the most lethal route in the world.” Desperate asylum seekers have threatened to kill their own children unless they are rescued.  Hundreds of migrants have been thrown in the water by people smugglers. Crews of merchant ships have been threatened by survivors they have picked up. Tales of horror and despair come in with each boat.

This is not just an Italian problem. Riots amongst or with migrants have become a regular feature in Calais, where asylum seekers live in squalor around an area called ‘the jungle’ – a tinderbox of mainly African, Middle Eastern and Afghan refugees desperate to cross the channel into the UK. Other countries are facing similar problems. Thousands of Germans in the city of Dresden are protesting what they call the ‘Islamisation of the West’- most of the asylum seekers are Muslim.

I have been saying for a long time that shipping needs to have in place a systemic response to piracy, so it can react quickly and effectively whenever piracy inevitably rears its head elsewhere in the world. Shipping may also need a similar rethink on asylum seekers that shipmasters are bound- by law, tradition and the demand of humanity- to rescue. Shipping needs to consider carefully the security and other implications of the possibility that crews can be very easily overwhelmed by these migrants.

No doubt, governments and organisations like the UN have a major role to play going forward; shipping cannot solve this problem alone, even though it is at the front line and is, often, the first responder to the crisis. All I am saying is that everybody needs to start thinking of systemic solutions to the migration of massive numbers of displaced people. So far, we are talking about annual numbers of about a third of a million. Imagine if the figure was ten million, or twenty- the kind of figure that, for example, rising sea levels will easily force upon us down the line.


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