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Avoiding a war in the Mediterranean – Álvaro de Vasconcelos

Atualizado: 25 de Out de 2019


Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet





A military operation against people smugglers, as proposed in the European Council’s meeting on April 23, could be a strategic and humanitarian political disaster – but above all an ethical failure which would be completely inconsistent with the European Union’s values and the normative ambitions of the European Neighbourhood Policy. The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy should propose an alternative plan that combines a rescue operation on the high seas with a strategy to deal with the Libyan crisis and the war in Syria, the main causes of the Mediterranean tragedy.

In April 2015, Europe and the world awoke to a humanitarian tragedy in the Mediterranean, the death of 800 people at sea as the result of people smuggling. Between January and May 2015, 1,800 people had died at seas as they sought to reach Europe.

The majority of people crossing the Mediterranean through the illegal emigration routes are fleeing the wars sweeping the failed states of the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Iraq and Libya. It is a phenomenon that many Portuguese know only too well. In the 1960s and 1970s, many escaped from Portugal and its colonies to Europe, fleeing from poverty and the colonial wars – a million to France alone, equally assisted by smugglers.

According to the United Nations, in 2014 and in early 2015 most who tried to cross the Mediterranean were of Syrian origin. Syrians have been fleeing the repressive dictatorship of the Asad regime or bombings, whether carried out by regime forces or armed groups such as ISIS, fighting its sectarian war there,. After the Syrians, the largest groups trying to reach Europe are made up of Afghans, Eritreans and Somalis – also inhabitants of countries in conflict.

These men and women have a well-founded fear of being persecuted if they return home and are entitled to asylum, or at the very least protection under the Conventions signed by all European Union states. Legally, all are entitled to have their pleas considered and, from a humanitarian viewpoint, all have a right to protection.

Syrian refugees have concentrated mainly in neighbouring countries. Four million are registered in Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq. Lebanon has 4.2 million inhabitants and has received 1.2 million registered refugees; Turkey has welcomed 1.7 million people. In contrast, the 28 member states of the European Union registered only 234,879 asylum applications from Syrian refugees between April 2011 and March 2015 – 56% in Germany and Sweden – and have strongly opposed António Guterres’s appeals to harbour more refugees on the continent. The European Commission proposed that EU states accept 40,000 refugees, an insignificant number for a European population of over 500 million people, but this proposal has been met with great resistance. Some European Union commentators, such as the High Representative, have stated that European nations have done very little to respond to the crisis.

But most critically, Operation Mare Nostrum, the Italian maritime operation that in 2014 had saved 100,000 people off the Libyan coast, was replaced in November 2014 with Operation Triton for the protection of European coasts. The change of purpose denoted an assumption within Europe that the act of rescuing people at sea would be an incentive to attempt the crossing.

The cause for this lack of solidarity by the EU states is the growing influence of populists who claim that refugees and immigrants are a threat to security, employment and national identity, particularly if they are Muslims. Islamophobia is rife throughout the continent, and the leaders of major democratic parties have allowed their speeches to become contaminated with this anti-immigration rhetoric which conflates immigrants, refugees and terrorists as threats to employment because of Europe’s freedom of movement under the Schengen Convention.

The European Council’s decision of 23rd April, 2015 to launch a military operation to intercept refugees and migrants who want to reach the EU is also strategically risky and dangerous. It is certainly no way to stem the flow. People smugglers are not causing the wave of refugees or immigrants for, in the absence of a legal path of access, they simply become a mechanism by which to reach Europe.

If a military intervention in Libya is deployed, far from solving the problems causing the traffic of refugees, it might destroy the smuggler boats and aggravate the civil war there. Any intervention force could become a target for Libyan militias, adding a new dimension to existing conflicts, for air power alone will not be able to eliminate the smuggling and Libyans are ferociously opposed to foreign boots on the ground.

There is another way: Europe must design a strategy to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Syria and the civil war in Libya by creating legal channels for the refugees to arrive here without risking their lives. In Syria, this means participating in a peace-building operation, in coalition with Arab countries, Brazil and India. Indeed, it could be that such an operation may become necessary far sooner than expected. With Damascus currently in jeopardy, the Assad regime may be forced to negotiate a peace deal with some, at least, of its opponents, whatever the cost ot its pride and self-image. But such an operation must have a solid mandate to stabilize the country, for it may face belligerents such as ISIS which will be unwilling to accept any peace agreement short of total victory. In Libya, the European Union must be prepared to support a peace agreement that could result from the negotiations being led by the United Nations, alongside recovering its humanitarian purpose and reputation.

Este artigo foi originalmente publicado no Público de 15 de junho de 2015

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