A couple of weeks ago I tweeted a link to a BBC news story on the Triton operation that has taken over from Mare Nostrum monitoring, rescuing and landing migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy.
What struck me was the parallel to the Somalia piracy crisis at its height: a handful of small ships attempting to patrol a huge area, except this time in pursuit of people that want to be found. The Twittersphere inexplicably overlooked my missive but I didn’t think this would be the last of it.
It seems the similarity was not lost on IMO either. In assembling representatives from organisations with more acronyms between them than could fill a Scrabble bag, it is encouraging a faster and more concerted response than was managed to piracy.
This is because of, rather than despite the fact that ‘mixed migration’ of refugees from the conflicts, instability and economic chaos of the Middle East has seen an unprecedented increase in both attempted crossings and resulting deaths.
It would be simplistic to say that each of the statements, from IMO to the International Organization for Migration was fundamentally that ‘something must be done’ but that is the literal truth of the situation.
Mixed migration is risky to the merchant ships that are obliged to divert and often deadly for the refugees. It is a political hand grenade for Italy in particular and European governments in general given the near-hysterical statements about immigration rolled out in pursuit of votes.
The threat, floated last week by a particularly cynical security provider, that Islamic State might be about to bring Jihad to Mediterranean waters, cannot be completely discounted. The suspicion that along with genuine refugees, Europe is importing the next generation of radicalised terrorists sits uneasily in the back of the mind.
Yet every speaker had something valid to say, most memorably about the bigger migration story that shipping in the eastern Med finds itself by dint of circumstance. Similar large scale, unsafe migrations are underway across the Americas, Middle East Gulf and Asia as a great wave of population seeks to escape poverty, violence, war or all three.
So something must be done – but what? Legal barriers are nothing of the sort when the refugees have nothing to lose. Disincentives are tricky when the international community is unable to make countries of origin safe, stable or prosperous enough for the population to remain there.
Dedicated reception facilities should be started and even some kind of reception vessels, since as was pointed out more than once, the risks of a crossing do not act as a brake on ambitions, but perhaps the risks can be mitigated with specialist resources.
Without a doubt more capacity is needed for Triton, though which governments have personnel and resources to spare is another question entirely.
As ICS secretary-general Peter Hinchliffe pointed out at the session’s end, the wait for a co-ordinated response to piracy was almost interminable. When it came, it rested upon three pillars: government action, best industry practice and capacity building in Somalia.
African piracy has not disappeared but the approach largely worked and similar action is needed here, though Hinchliffe said the industry is “still only at the lobbying stage” on the migration issue.
While the lobbying continues, Europeans will continue to read headlines concerning the needless deaths of people who mostly want to enjoy the same standards of living and human rights as we do.
The template exists for action and remedy on unsafe migration. Over to you, UN agencies and all governments concerned. And this time, we are holding our breath.