Tychy is not a supporter of military interventions – indeed, I would even dither over a Rwanda – but once a do-gooding nation has intervened in another country’s affairs then it naturally takes on unavoidable moral responsibilities. This is not a question of “international law” and I would instead use the more straightforward, even chivalrous, language of honour and decency.
Take two of the recent wars in which the UK has been a player, conflicts which are generally considered to involve a more suave and skilful application of military interventionism than previous operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In March 2011, the UK, along with France and Lebanon, tabled and voted for the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973 which legally authorised the use of all means short of military occupation to impose “an immediate ceasefire” on Libya. The UK consequently sent in RAF Tornadoes and a submarine which fired Cruise Missiles to give this peace a chance. By June, when Libya’s desperate dictator Colonel Gaddafi had agreed to abide by the outcome of an internationally monitored election, the interventionists were acting as little more than a volunteer air force for the rebel fighters. Gaddafi was not allowed his election but the trouble was that nobody else in Libya was committed to bringing together the country through democratic means. The last nationwide election, in June 2014, had a turnout of only 18%. The interventionists faded away, leaving Libya to drift through a ruinous civil war all on its own. As the New Yorker reported in February:
There is no overstating the chaos of post-Qaddafi Libya. Two competing governments claim legitimacy. Armed militias roam the streets. The electricity is frequently out of service, and most business is at a standstill; revenues from oil, the country’s greatest asset, have dwindled by more than ninety per cent. Some three thousand people have been killed by fighting in the past year, and nearly a third of the country’s population has fled across the border to Tunisia.
The UK was not directly involved in the civil war which has been ongoing in Syria since 2011 and the UK parliament is frequently congratulated for keeping out of this conflict (although 272 British parliamentarians nonetheless voted for war). Yet on the same basis of good old decency rather than the more reptilian attribute of international legality, we bear an undeniable responsibility for this war’s horrendous refugee crisis. Between 2012 and 2013, the UK and France continuously insinuated that they would intervene in some way if the suffering of civilians became sufficiently acute. The message was essentially this: if enough of you die, or if there are enough crimes against humanity, then we might possibly step in. The regime’s use of nerve gas against civilians was a “red line” and then, after it had been used against civilians, it wasn’t. This still incentivised the rebels to keep fighting on hopelessly against the dictatorship, destabilising the country to the point in which over six million people have been now displaced. Almost four million have fled the country completely.
Around two million Libyans have ended up in Tunisia, whilst Syria’s refugees are dispersed predominantly throughout Turkey and Lebanon. We are considering massive movements of people, a dreadfully literal example of tired, poor and huddled masses, the “wretched refuse” of wars in which we – yes we! – participated. In the case of Libya, we encouraged the rebels to rise up against their government before we immediately vanished into thin air. The metaphor is so obvious that it is somewhat embarrassing, but it still functions perfectly well. Imagine the absolute pig who has had his way with a woman and who then, on hearing that she is pregnant, deletes her number from his mobile phone. With Libya it is almost exactly the same, except that it is not one baby who we have produced but two million refugees. This would lead to quite a commotion in the Jeremy Kyle Show studio.
A related consequence of the destabilisation of Libya is suddenly in the news, after between five and seven hundred people drowned yesterday in the Mediterranean. They had left Libya for the Italian island of Lampedusa, loaded on to a totally inadequate boat by cold-blooded people traffickers. The claustrophobic terror of being packed on to one of these boats is unimaginable. Many of those who died were probably dragged down by loved ones who could not swim.
As spring turns to summer, a lot more of these boats will take to the waves, and they will be essentially gambling on being intercepted by Italian and Maltese ships. According to the Guardian the majority of these migrants come from Syria, Somalia, and Eritrea (with their greater wealth and family connections, Libyan asylum seekers tend to flee to Tunisia or Egypt). Last year the Italian search-and-rescue service Mare Nostrum was replaced by the European Union’s Operation Triton, which only rescues boats that make it to within thirty miles of the Italian coastline. Since not many boats ever get this far, the migrant death toll subsequently rose fiftyfold. The UK’s Conservative-led government advocated pulling the funding for Mare Nostrum on the grounds that the absence of search-and-rescue would act as a deterrent to asylum seekers. The moral horror of this has been best put by Michael Diedring, the secretary-general of the European Council for Refugees:
It is as if you walk by a river and see a child being pulled away by the current and think: ‘I’ll let the child drown because then the other kids will know that they shouldn’t fall into the river.’ Hopefully, most of us would jump in or pick up a branch to save the child. It’s basic humanity.
Tychy is a supporter of mass immigration, but this cannot be imposed upon Italy without democratic consent. If Italy does not possess the democratic wherewithal to embrace its destiny as a gigantic warehouse for asylum seekers, the alternative is to cede more of a role to the EU, which is under barely any democratic control at all. Death might look gigantically down on the Mediterranean from the island of Lampedusa, but the work that is done here in dealing with incoming asylum seekers is admirably humane. Nevertheless, it might buckle under the pressure of soaring numbers, so that the EU ends up adopting the Australian model of towing incoming migrant vessels back to from whence they came. Or else they could continue the current policy of forcibly settling asylum seekers in countries which are too poor to properly look after their welfare.
One solution would be for the UK to accept that it has a moral responsibility to welcome migrants from nations which it has previously helped reduce to a state of anarchy. The UK has committed an unprecedented £800 million in aid to support Syrian refugees in countries such as Lebanon, though it is hardly diplomatically feasible that it could have avoided this spending. Moreover, the UK’s good work in donating this aid is undermined by the insulting refusal to countenance Syrians on UK soil, as if their very presence would somehow contaminate the country. The UK has offered less than a hundred places to asylum seekers from Syria, which does not cut much of a lane through the total of 3.8 million. Most of the aid to Libya and Tunisia remains purely military.
The only UK politician to recognise any sort of obligation to these migrants is the UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who seems to be being progressively strangled throughout this election, with his voice growing ever smaller and squeakier. Farage told the BBC’s Sunday Politics yesterday that, “We have directly caused this problem,” but he was otherwise lost for a solution, aside from a particularly clumsy recommendation to offer “refugee status to some Christians from those countries.” His implication is that we are a Christian country and that we should help our own. We are not a Christian country and we should not discriminate against asylum seekers on any religious grounds at all.
I think that we should welcome these migrants to the UK without any conditions attached, to make up for what our country has done to theirs. But it might also do this country some good to receive migrants with the phenomenal bravery and determination which is needed to travel from Syria or Somalia to Libya and Lampedusa. It is genuinely inspiring and a few drops more of this should be spread throughout our whole society.