I am probably being uncharitable when I suggest that the Mediterranean refugee crisis has received, because of the fact that it threatens Europe, markedly more prompt attention from the UN and the IMO than the Vietnamese boat people tragedy did a few decades ago. Hundreds of thousands died and a few thousand women were raped before that one ended.
I have written about the present crisis extensively in the last few months, so I will just point out this time (while trying to avoid the litany of statistics and the stories of daily tragedies that freeze us in horror) that the steps the EU and the IMO are threatening to take are going to be futile. This ‘exodus without end’ is not going to be stopped by the IMO reviewing legislation on SAR at sea ‘as a matter of priority’ or because, as it says, “Search and rescue systems maintained by the shipping community are not designed for rescuing hundreds of thousands of people drifting on small, unseaworthy boats left in shipping lanes.” (Talk about stating the obvious.)
The tragedy is not even going to be sorted out by the IMO Secretary General’s speeches reiterating this sentiment, or by the organisation calling for “urgent action” on the “complex issue of mixed migration by sea,” or for “gaps” – presumably in systems and processes- to be filled up.
The humanitarian disaster will not be solved by shipowner or seafarer unions urging the EU to take action. Incidentally, they are wrong when they say the crisis is ‘spiralling out of control.’ It was spiralling out of control a year or two ago, folks. It has already spiralled the hell out of control by now.
The EU has come up with a ‘ten point action plan’ that reminds me of some of the weird articles I read on the internet (like ‘Ten things you didn’t know about women’). Whatever, the crisis is not going to be solved with the EU plan either. Reinforcement of joint operations in the Med, destroying smugglers vessels, fingerprinting all migrants, a ‘return programme’ for refugees (whatever that means) and such stuff will do little, or nothing, to stem the flood. People will continue to try to flock to Europe- refugees and economic migrants included.
All these knee jerk reactions will come to zilch because they are knee jerk and because the EU and the IMO have got hold of the wrong end of the stick. These plans will not even begin to solve the overwhelmingly biggest reason for the problem. Surprising, this oversight from setups like the IMO, considering how everybody in the maritime world just loves the phrase ‘root cause’ these days.
That root cause, as we all well know unless we were on Mars for the last ten years, is anarchy in the countries these refugees originate from and instability in the countries from where they board their rickety boats. In turn, the root causes of much of the anarchy have been military misadventures by, amongst others, many States belonging to the same EU that is under seige today. Maybe they need to learn something from this; the coalition of the absurd is directly responsible, after Iraq, Libya, and others, for much of the mess it finds itself in. Maybe they need to keep this in mind for the future.
Some in shipping are trying to draw parallels between this crisis and the Somali piracy issue, saying that piracy off the Horn of Africa has stopped even though Somalia remains unstable, but that is a false argument. Somali piracy has waned (for the time being?) because we started putting armed men on our ships. We cannot do that in the Med, at least not without saying that ships should not go to the rescue of those in distress at sea- which would be a terrible stand to take and would destroy one of the noblest traditions of the sea.
In all this, the biggest issue for shipping is going to be, sooner, one of security. Since this problem is not going to be sorted out anytime soon I wait in dread of the day when I will open a link online, or a newspaper, and read another story about a merchant ship that went, with a crew of 20, to assist 400 refugees in the Mediterranean. You know, the kind of story and the kind of numbers that are commonplace today. Except that hidden amongst those refugees are a dozen well-armed terrorists who board the ship.
You can write your own ending to that one.