By: Chris Warren.
Few Americans here at our insulated cocoon between the oceans closely follow international news. Unless one goes well out of their way to keep up, it’s easy to think we’re the center of the universe and the only country with any kind of immigration problem. Far beyond our shores is an immigration situation that is more serious and life-threatening than anything going on in the USA and it deserves the attention of every kind hearted man and woman no matter where they live.
Operation Mare Nostrum (Latin for “our sea”) rescued African refugees who set out on the Mediterranean Sea bound for Europe to escape violence and terrorism in their home countries, particularly Syria and Libya. Italy began the operation in October 2013 after two shipwrecks left over 400 dead. Although no one really knows for sure how many attempted the crossing in the last year, Mare Nostrum has rescued 150,000 souls. One hundred and fifty thousand. In one year. That’s equivalent to the population of a decent sized city. Let that sink in for a moment.
The yearlong rescue mission conducted exclusively by Italy ended on October 31, 2014 because the other European Union nations did not want to help fund it. Italy had absorbed the entire $142 million (US) bill up to now, and they were not willing to go forward paying the tab and doing all the work alone. Mare Nostrum will be replaced by a much smaller scale Operation Triton. Triton will be carried out by Frontex, roughly the European Union equivalent of our United States Border Patrol. Triton is a coastal water security program only; high seas rescues are not within the scope of the mission.
It’s both unfortunate and understandable that operation Mare Nostrum was cut off. Unfortunate because without it thousands of victims will lose their lives in the harsh waves of the Mediterranean. Understandable because there are certain realities that cannot be ignored even if it does involve life and death. One nation cannot be expected to bear the entire burden forever, and there must be some consideration for the great peril the courageous Italian rescuers themselves are placed in while responding to distress calls.
The primary reason given by other European Union nations for withholding support for a permanent rescue policy had little to do with money. Rather, E.U. nations claim that if escapees believe they will be saved when things go wrong, they will be encouraged to attempt the dangerous sea crossing. This is seriously flawed reasoning that if not reversed will result in many deaths.
For the the refugees, leaving is a choice that is made for them. They are not going on vacation or looking to freeload off the Europeans. They are trying to escape terror and torture in Africa. The possibility that the Italians will save them (or not) is probably the farthest thing from their minds as they set sail on junky, unsafe, overcrowded boats. If you are stuck in a burning building and the only choices are to either die in the fire or jump out the window, you’re going to take your chances and jump whether the fire department is there to catch you or not. That’s the untenable position the asylum-seekers find themselves in.
The USA has been picking up fleeing Cubans from the Gulf of Mexico for decades in a western version of Mare Nostrum. Refugees intercepted at sea are not automatically brought back to the USA. Under the “wet foot-dry foot rule,” any Cuban refugee who actually makes it to the mainland USA on his own (“dry foot”) is allowed to stay and enter the legal immigration process. This policy is motivated by politics and not humanitarianism in that it applies only to Cubans. Everyone else is returned to a safe haven either in their home countries or elsewhere. No one is left to die in the Gulf.
Finding a definitive answer to the crisis in Africa is almost impossible. One of first solutions usually blurted out is to improve conditions in the other nations so there will be no (or less) reason to escape in the first place. This brings on a whole new plate of troubles: Accusations of imperialism or nation building, costs running into the billions, and very low likelihood of long-term success. One of President George W. Bush’s ultimate goals of the Iraq war was to stabilize the country so that everyday Iraqis would have a respectable standard of living. After decade and a half, billions of dollars, and many Americans and Iraqis killed, the place is in many ways a bigger mess than it was in early days of the Bush administration. The United States got absolutely nothing for the lives and treasure invested. We can argue the details ad nauseam, but the intended end result –a stable, democratic Iraq– is still unfinished business. Nation building never works, and even if it did, the promise of a free & peaceful society many years out is not helpful to doomed souls floating in the water today.
The other option is to keep plucking escapees from the sea and find a way to assimilate them into other cultures. This is more of a band aid than a true fix and has the potential to prove true concerns that a long term rescue policy will acclimate Africans to undertake hazardous sea voyages they might not otherwise attempt. It also gives abusive governments an easy method of getting rid of criminals and troublemakers, thereby dumping the problem on others. Fidel Castro was known to free violent criminals from Cuba’s prisons on the condition that they immediately leave the country.
Italy has honorably carried the burden alone, but this is not solely an Italian problem. European countries should “pay it forward” in recognition of the goodwill they have received in hard times. The modest cost split between several countries is barely a blip on a national budget radar and could even be funded all or in large part with donations of private money.
Forcibly improving the living conditions in Africa is an unattainable goal, and Operation Mare Nostrum as an indefinite rescue operation is also a far from a perfect solution. But it’s nowhere near as imperfect or immoral as purposely leaving tens of thousands of desperate victims to die in the Mediterranean Sea.