Counting the Costs of the Mediterranean Migrants

Over 3,000 perished in 2014, and this year's numbers already show horrific spike.

By Crawford Kilian 24 Apr 2015 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

For a generation, the West (including Canada) has largely ignored the greatest mass migration since the ethnic cleansing of Europe after the Second World War.

That migration has largely been from North Africa and the Middle East into Europe, driven by factors from oppressive local governments to the rapid southward spread of the Sahara desert. Whatever the causes, Amnesty International estimates that between 1988 and last September, 21,344 men, women, and children drowned in the Mediterranean while trying to reach Europe.

Now, the numbers are spiking. Over 3,000 died in the Mediterranean in 2014 -- nearly two per cent, Amnesty says, of all who embarked.

If two per cent of BC Ferries passengers drowned between Horseshoe Bay and Departure Bay, travel to and from Vancouver Island would cease. But odds of 50 to one have not deterred this year's Mediterranean migrants. About 800 died in one horrific incident this month. The International Organization for Migration says this year's death toll is already 30 times that of early 2014 and could rise to 30,000.

This is not just the Europeans' problem; we bear our share of responsibility. After all, we took part in the Afghan war in 2002, we supported Israel's war against Hezbollah in 2006, and we dropped bombs on Muammar Gadhafi as a prelude to turning Libya into a nightmare anarchy. Now we're bombing the Islamic State, the bastard child of George W. Bush's insane war against Iraq.

These wars overwhelmed the shaky calm maintained by our onetime pals like Gadhafi and Saddam. They also provoked every murderous malcontent between Nigeria and Syria, dislodging millions of people who just wanted to make a living and bring up their kids. Now those millions are heading for the nearest safe place: western Europe.

A moral and political dilemma

The migrants put the Europeans (and us) in a moral dilemma. The European Union is economically stagnant and perhaps about to lose Greece. Most EU member states have anti-immigration movements with political clout, and immigrant communities that tend to be relatively impoverished and socially isolated. Demographically, Europe needs young workers to help support its aging citizens. Politically, it's hard to gain those citizens' support for the immigrants.

So political cost/benefit analysis doesn't work in the migrants' favour. When countries are stressed, they tend to blame either outsiders or some unpopular group of insiders, and the migrants look like both.

It doesn't help that most of the migrants land in Italy and Greece, two countries already among the most stressed in the EU. Italy's rescue program, called Mare Nostrum, was shut down last year after saving 100,000 lives (each rescue costing 712 euros, or $935 Canadian); other EU members didn't want to help pay for it, and Italy couldn't afford to go it alone.

Meanwhile, at current rates the Greeks expect 100,000 migrants to reach their shores and to stay for some unknown time before finding permanent asylum elsewhere in the EU -- or being repatriated.

Far more would likely arrive in Italy, which already hosts around 20,000 migrants in camps like Mineo, where they wait up to a year for a decision on their status.

Strikingly, the recipient countries say little or nothing in public about the cost of rescuing, housing, feeding and transporting these new migrants. Save the Children, a major non-governmental organization, argues that a search-and-rescue operation comparable to Italy's Mare Nostrum should be launched immediately, with at least 900 personnel and a monthly budget of 9 million euros ($11.8 million Canadian).

The bottom line of detaining migrants

Amnesty International estimates that 600,000 persons are detained in Europe every year, for up to 18 months. Assuming that the cost of detention and administration is about $100 daily (as it is for prisoners in the U.S.), that amounts to almost $22 billion in yearly expenditures.

With right-wing anti-immigrant parties already flourishing across the EU, the Europeans don't need 22 billion more reasons to turn migrants away. A British professional troll named Katie Hopkins has called for gunships to drive the migrants back to Africa.

It now appears that the EU will accept no more than 5,000 of the current immigrants, sending at least 150,000 back to wherever they were trying to flee. Evidently they hope to deter more migrants, who will have to be content with being beheaded on some Libyan beach or dying at home south of the Sahara rather than inconvenience the Europeans.

Historians will appreciate the irony. The Europeans now spurning the wretched outcasts from Africa and the Middle East are themselves the descendants of barbarian tribes that descended on the Roman Empire in search of peace and prosperity. The Romans did their best to keep them out, and failed.

Lessons from history

The rest, as they say, is history. Now it's our turn, and maybe we can learn from our barbarian and Roman ancestors.

The Romans tried walls and frontier forts, with little success. Foreigners kept coming in from the Sahara to the North African provinces, and from eastern Europe to Gaul and the other provinces that buffered Italy itself. With their presence a fait accompli, Rome put them to work as soldiers, farmers, and taxpayers. Of course they changed Rome, just as Rome itself had changed Europe by conquering it.

The finest minds in the EU now seem to want to return the hordes to the African shore and keep them there. Then they want to pull in naval patrols to European waters, where any arrivals who hadn't drowned could then be turned back. Amnesty International dismisses the idea as a "woefully inadequate and shameful response."

A better solution might be to forestall the migrants by giving them something to live for on the other side of the Mediterranean.

Suppose the EU (and other nations, including Canada) leased sizeable patches of land on the coasts of Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt, and Libya as "special economic zones," under joint management by the host country and the sponsor countries.

Migrants would be welcomed there and offered work -- including building their own homes, schools, hospitals, and factories. They would be paid modestly but adequately and encouraged to save their money while applying for permanent residence elsewhere. Security would be provided by UN peacekeepers and perhaps some NATO units.

Safe zones

The zones would maintain good relations with their host countries, buying goods and services locally, and where possible selling their own goods to their hosts at reasonable prices. Rather than being money pits like most refugee camps, the zones would earn their keep, or at least most of it.

They would also take the pressure off the Europeans, Turks, and Jordanians, who might turn some of their own refugee camps into similar zones. The migrants would maintain or acquire job skills, paying their own way while doing the paperwork needed to find permanent asylum.

Would the zones attract still more migrants? Very likely, but so what? They'd be productively employed outside Europe, with a stake in the success of the zones. Host countries like Jordan and Lebanon would be relieved of a major burden. It would be far cheaper than the present save-and-detain system.

Whether the migrants left the zones for new homes elsewhere, or returned to their own countries, they'd have skills and experience -- economic assets wherever they go.

Who knows? Some of them might end up in Canada, ready and eager to go to work for a country that had been willing to go to work for them.  [Tyee]

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