Why compassion alone will not end the horrors of people-trafficking

Migrants sit in an inflatible boat during one of the rescue operations off the coast of Sicily. (Photo: AFP)


Who are this year’s best contenders for the title of most callous people on Earth? This year has seen an unusually strong lineup, starting, perhaps with the folks who shot down that Malaysian airliner over Ukraine, and including, of course, the crazed head-choppers of the Islamic State.

Another strong entry, though, has to be the people traffickers who ply their trade ferrying African migrants across the Mediterranean to Europe. As we reported on Monday, they’ve been held responsible for the deaths of nearly 700 people in the last week, following the sinking of two boats, one carrying 500 people from Egypt and the other carrying 160 people from Libya. In the case of the boat from Egypt, reports have emerged that the boat was deliberately sunk by the traffickers, after an argument broke out when they tried to order the passengers to transfer to a second, even smaller boat in the middle of the sea.

When the passengers refused to do, pointing out that their existing boat was already overcrowded as it was, the traffickers in the smaller boat apparently rammed the bigger one, causing it to capsize. As the International Organisation for Migration put it, “it seems to have been not an accident but mass murder, perpetrated by criminals without scruples or any respect for human life”.

Sadly, the IOM are all too used to putting out anguished press statements of this sort. An estimated 2,500 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean this year alone, not least because of the trafficking gangs’ habit of employing the migrants themselves to steer the vessels. According to Gil Arias, a senior official at the Frontex European border agency who I interviewed last year,“In many cases, the smugglers give some very basic training to one of the migrants to operate the boat so that gang members don’t have to be on board at the time. That may be why they often end up sinking.”

Nonetheless, the sheer brutality of this latest tragedy has provoked renewed soul-searching over the harsh global iniquities that prompt people in one part of the world to risk their lives to get to the other. Angelina Jolie, the UN’s celebrity envoy and Hollywood’s roving conscience at large, who happened to be on honeymoon in Malta with hubby Brad at the time, put out a statement citing the “direct link” between conflicts in places like Syria and those perishing in the Mediterranean.

“We have to understand what drives people to take the fearful step of risking their children’s lives on crowded, unsafe vessels,” she said. “It is the overwhelming desire to find refuge.”

Migrants at a holding centre in Malta (Photo by Ian Noel Pace)

Ms Jolie avoided making any prescriptions on how European governments might address the problem, perhaps mindful of the backlash that might ensure were a Hollywood celebrity now resident in France to start lecturing on immigration policy. However, the IOM has effectively done that itself, calling for European governments to deprive traffickers of their livelihoods by opening up more “legal avenues” for people fleeing war and persecution to enter Europe.

The problem is, however, that that isn’t going to happen. As the success of anti-immigration parties across Europe in recent years has shown, growing numbers of voters feel the continent has enough refugees as it is, be they political or economic.

Even liberal Sweden seems to be changing its mind. At last weekend’s elections, the country’s Far Right Swedish Democrats doubled their vote to become the country’s third largest party, pointing out that the government’s generous asylum policies, which include a more or less open door for Syrian refugees, has now reached 1.5 per cent of GDP, threatening the viability of Sweden’s generous welfare state. So much for the ambition of Fredrick Reinfeldt, Sweden’s prime minister, for his country to become a “humanitarian superpower”.

In the meantime, the traffickers will continue to quite literally make a killing, aided by the fact that the meltdown in the government in Libya has removed any real curbs on their main operating base. True, one would have to have a heart of stone not to be moved by the migrants’ plight: the crossing they make is the humanitarian equivalent of those poor unfortunates who tried to escape across the Berlin Wall during the Cold War, risking death in order to flee from a grim world to a happier one. Yet it is also the case that not every occupant of a trafficking boat is necessarily destitute, or fleeing their home country because they have no other choice.

During interviews with would-be migrants in Libya last year, I found many who had no particular problem with their lives back in the likes of Ghana, Nigeria, and Chad, but simply believed they would have a better one in Europe. They had often saved up a thousand euros or more to pay for the journey – a lot of cash back home – and planned not to claim welfare upon their arrival, but to work. They were, in short, the more entrepreneurial, get-up-and-go types of their communities. And, as such, the very people that their communities would probably benefit from keeping at home.

Sadly, that dynamism alone is not always enough to see them through when they finally reach Europe’s shores. In Greece and Italy, which pick up the majority of such migrants, many arrive arrive with no money, little in the way of language skills, and few prospects for finding work other than manual labour. I have no doubt that Ms Jolie, whose credentials as a humanitarian I have some respect for – she works pretty hard at it – would happily employ some in the wine chateau where she lives. But that wouldn’t be nearly enough, as I’ve seen from recent trips to places like Naples and Malta, where migrants congregate in big numbers. There, they form a migrant underclass, street hawking at road junctions or loitering at roundabouts in the hope of finding work. It isn’t a good advert for the benefits of immigration, and you don’t have to be a supporter of the Swedish National Democrats to anticipate that such an underclass may also be tempted into crime.

So while I sympathise with Ms Jolie’s intentions, I’m not sure that compassion alone is the right solution here. The best way of depriving people traffickers’ of their livelihoods is to help the countries of sub-Saharan Africa become places where people want to stay, rather than leave. That may sound hard-hearted to some. But the real callousness here is on the part of the traffickers who exploit such migrants, not the people whose lands they seek to come to.

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