Or maybe between a...rogue wave and a hard place?
Yesterday, the European Union asked the UN Security Council to endorse an EU naval plan to board and sink vessels used in human trafficking across the Mediterranean, in order to cut off the flow of migrants from Libya and elsewhere. This year alone, tens of thousands of migrants have attempted to cross the sea from North Africa into Europe, fleeing violence and lawlessness in their home countries. Refugee centers in Greece, Spain, and beyond are struggling to bear the weight of the upsurge in new arrivals. The migrants, for their part, live in harsh, precarious accommodations, assuming they're lucky enough to even arrive.
Many are not.
Last year, 3,400 of these "boat people" never made it to the shores of southern Europe. This year's numbers are on track to be even larger.
Many of us think of the Mediterranean as a tranquil sea under fair skies. But our vision of resorts, pristine beaches, and warm, blue water is in stark contrast with the reality that many migrants face when crossing in inflatable dinghies or decrepit fishing boats, carrying nothing but the clothes on their backs. Because the human traffickers running these vessels are out to make a profit, they pack way more people aboard than could ever be considered safe.
And when the boats start to go down, EU navy vessels may be nowhere in sight, consigning the passengers to a grisly fate.
In spite of the criticism that humanitarian organizations have heaped on EU governments for their response to the situation (which is their job, after all), I think European countries overall have done a fairly decent job dealing with a crisis not (entirely) of their making. Military personnel have taken valiant action to rescue those stranded at sea, and the EU is developing plans to equitably resettle those migrants who do arrive in Europe. (Check out those pictures, they're really something.)
But military action against trafficker's boats? I've got a couple major problems with that, even if we ignore the undoubtedly tricky international maritime law regarding destroying non-combatant vessels launched from other countries.
First, the notion that destroying the vessels will stop those fleeing from attempting the crossing is just wrong-- they're not out there on the water, packed like livestock at a factory farm onto an inflatable boat about as wide as my bedroom because they thought it would be fun to put-put up to Europe for the day. They're fleeing, because they literally cannot live in their home countries anymore. If you destroy those boats, people are still going to try and cross, and the traffickers will find other ways to float them. Like rafts. And then even more people are going to die. Search-and-destroy fixes nothing, it only makes people more desperate and exacerbates the already dire humanitarian situation.
Second, I'm deeply uncomfortable with the idea that countries would use their armed forces to cut the lifeline of those fleeing violence and repression. EU politicians have framed the crisis as a security issue, and it is. But it should be one of human security rather than national security. To use the language of terrorism and drug trafficking in combating this problem unfairly criminalizes people who are, at the end of the day, trying to do one thing-- exercise their rights as human beings to enjoy a degree of safety, security, and dignity.
I understand the bind that the EU countries are in, here. They've got problems of their own, the economic situation in Southern Europe is perilous as it is, and they don't necessarily have a place for all those people to go.
But their situation is nowhere near as perilous as that of the migrants fleeing across the sea.
What's more, a military solution to the problem adds to the already troubling worldwide trend of using security forces to punish human rights defenders or those asserting their rights, silence dissent, and reinforce the powerful at the expense of the marginalized. The buzzwords have changed, decades ago it was containment of Communism, then it was the War on Drugs, and now it's national security and terrorism, but the objective- militarization- has remained the same. We need less of that, not more, and the developed world needs to lead by example. The time, money, and effort of a military operation would be better spent improving the conditions of the facilities that receive and process the migrants, or conducting peacebuilding work in the affected regions in order to try and stop this mounting crisis at its source. This is as true for Europe's maritime policy as it is for the situation on our border with Mexico.
We can only hope the UN can show a path to a better solution.
...brothers in more than name....