The EgyptAir disaster is a tragedy, but let’s not forget the other crisis on the Med

27 May 2016

Last Thursday, like all of us, I woke up to the terrible news about the missing EgyptAir plane over the Mediterranean. I can only imagine how terrible it must be for the families who expected to see their loved ones happily emerge from Cairo Airport’s arrivals terminal.

Rightly, and as you would expect, significant resources were deployed to search for the wreckage, however unlikely it was that survivors would be found. But this situation does make me think about those other people in need of rescue on the Mediterranean: refugees.

Unlike the 66 tragically killed on board Flight MS807, there is hope for the people crossing the Mediterranean in tiny boats. Indeed, we saw the Italian Navy rescue hundreds from a capsized boat yesterday, and last week a Norwegian team rescued another 200. But their odds of survival depend largely on the extent to which resources are mobilised to help them. Unfortunately, nowhere near enough effort being expounded to save those like the 33,900 estimated to have made the perilous journey between Libya and Italy this year alone. Indeed the replacement in 2014 of the EU’s Operation Mare Nostrum search and rescue mission with the severely cut down Triton programme has had fatal consequences. Triton has a budget of just €2.9 million a month, less than we spend on To put that into context, the UK government spent more than that on biscuits in 2011-2.

Charities like Medecins Sans Frontieres have tried to fill in the gaps left by under-resourced state efforts. But it’s not enough. So while the number of people seeking to cross the sea in this way has stayed relatively stable between 2014 and 2015, the number of deaths soared. A recent report has argued that cuts to the EU’s search and rescue budget have already cost 1,600 lives.

It is right that no efforts were spared in the search for the victims of MS807, even though, as was tragically the case, it turned out that no one is likely to have survived. But shouldn’t the EU also adopt the same approach for those fleeing war and repression in Libya, Eritrea, Syria and Iraq?

The biggest scandal here is the fact that it’s EU policy that is forcing so many refugees to risk their lives on the seas in the first place. Last month’s reprehensible pact between the EU and Turkey (we’ll turn a blind eye to your human rights abuses if you stop the refugees coming) has all but cut off the safest route for Syrian refugees to get to Europe. Indeed, in the very short term, it looks like the deal has worked to reduce arrivals in Greece.

But at what cost? The result is likely to mean more people heading to North Africa to try and cross over from Egypt and Libya. Fortress Europe’s ‘solution’ to the migrant crisis in the east is just going to make the situation worse in the south.

Imagine if the government implemented a policy that made plane crashes much more likely. There would be uproar. But this is a lot like what European countries are doing. More people are going to die in those tiny boats as a direct result of conscious policy made here in Europe. This is why my organisation is calling on everyone to reject the idea that what is happening is a ’migrant crisis’. The real crisis is one of war, repression and poverty and we can only deal with it if we deal with these root causes. That, not letting people drown in the sea, is the real solution to the crisis.


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