Mediterranean Crisis, Part 1: Migrant crisis can't be ignored

In an era rife with sectarian, tribal and political violence, it is tempting to turn away from the world and focus on our own domestic concerns. Why shouldn't the West leave the developing world to sort out its own problems? 

Why is it our responsibility to take care of other societies' most vulnerable people? We live in an interdependent international system, where diseases, conflicts, natural disasters, climate change and economic crises do not respect national boundaries. 

We can try to stay out of the developing world's troubles, but sooner or later they will cause problems for us, too. For example, the escalating migrant crisis in the Mediterranean is a tragic demonstration of interdependence. 

Violence and extreme poverty in Africa and the Middle East are driving migrants to flee their homelands, risking their lives in unseaworthy vessels operated by criminals and thugs. 

According to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, "the more than 1,700 deaths and almost 40,000 crossings we have seen so far in 2015 are symptoms of an enormous and intensifying tragedy that is playing out on Europe's southern frontiers." 

"The boat crossings are not just a migrant phenomenon, they are a refugee one, too -- half those who crossed the Mediterranean in 2014 were people seeking refuge from wars and persecution," UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards told reporters in Geneva last week. 

"And for refugees fleeing war, there has to be some alternative to having to cross the Mediterranean in smugglers' boats." Just two days before a nautical disaster claimed the lives of an estimated 900 migrants on the Mediterranean Sea, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi visited U.S. President Barack Obama at the White House. 

The leaders discussed a number of world issues, including Libya and the Mediterranean crisis. "I think the Mediterranean is a sea and not a cemetery," 

Renzi declared at a White House news conference on April 17. He cited the ongoing civil conflict in Libya as the main reason for the dramatic increase in the numbers of migrants fleeing North Africa by sea. 

According to the Italian leader, "91% of the people who come from Africa to Italy come from Libya." And he declared that the only way to stem the tide of migrants and end the state of anarchy in Libya is to establish stable Libyan institutions. 

President Obama also weighed in on the issue, noting that Libya "has been broken into a number of tribal factions." And he also pointed out that Libya is divided along sectarian lines, leaving the country without an effectively functioning central government. 

The ultimate solution to Libya's woes, Obama said, is to establish a strong central government that can exert control over the country's borders. "But the key point is stop human trafficking in the Mediterranean Sea," Renzi said of the crisis. 

There can be no doubt that Libya is the main hub for human trafficking in the region. "For many years, Libya has been the point of departure for thousands of people fleeing poverty and conflict in Western and sub-Saharan Africa, and in Syria," said Sarah Tyler, who works for Save the Children. 

She is in Calabria, Italy, helping to respond to the migrant crisis. It's clear that the escalating sectarian and tribal violence in the Middle East and North Africa are partly responsible for the mass exodus of people from those regions. 

"The deteriorating situation in Libya, as well as improving weather conditions, has led to a surge in the number of migrants departing for Europe," Tyler said. Last week, the Save the Children staffer interviewed a mother from Syria who, along with her three young children, made the dangerous voyage to Europe. 

"Her journey took five months from Syria to Italy, with more than eight days on the migrant vessel. She told me that she came to Italy to save her children's lives," Tyler said. In recent times, the European Union has attempted to step back from the ongoing migration crisis. 

Last year, EU members refused to help pay for a robust Italian maritime search and rescue mission that had saved an estimated 100,000 lives. However, the recent spike in the number of nautical disasters in the Mediterranean has forced the European Council to re-engage on the issue of maritime migration. 

The EU Council convened in Luxembourg on April 20 to discuss pressing world issues, including the ongoing civil conflict in Libya. On April 23, EU leaders gathered for a special meeting on the Mediterranean crisis. 

In a joint communique, they pledged that the EU would "mobilize all efforts at its disposal to prevent further loss of life at sea and to tackle the root causes of the human emergency that we face, in co-operation with the countries of origin and transit." 

The EU leaders declared that their most pressing priority is "to prevent more people from dying at sea." To that end, they committed to increasing the EU's "presence at sea, to fight the traffickers, to prevent illegal migration flows and to reinforce internal solidarity and responsibility." 

For example, they pledged to bolster search and rescue capabilities "by at least tripling the financial resources for this purpose in 2015 and 2016 and reinforcing the number of assets." The EU Council also declared that it would "undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and destroy vessels before they are used by traffickers." 

The EU is also considering resettling 5,000 migrants who have already made the Mediterranean voyage. Increasing maritime patrols and resettling a few thousand refugees in Europe are good initiatives. 

However, these measures do not address the root causes of mass migration from Africa and the Middle East: poverty, civil conflicts and political chaos. If the Mediterranean crisis is to be resolved, the community of nations must first stabilize Libya, establishing an effective government, targeting human traffickers and promoting economic development. 

 Last week, EU leaders took the first tentative step in that direction, pledging to "actively support all UN-led efforts towards re-establishing government authority in Libya." 

They also said that they'd "also step up efforts to address conflict and instability as key push factors of migration, including in Syria." Now is the time for the community of nations to proactively address the world's growing migrant and refugee crisis. 

Follow Geoffrey P. Johnston on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston.
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