The migrants streaming across the Mediterranean to Italy, who buy their freedom from war and hunger from traffickers and die by the thousands doing so, confront Europe with its most hideous dilemma. The issue is sharper than the Greek crisis, the euro crisis or even the Ukraine crisis. Sharper because it is measured in a daily toll of corpses, most never found. It is palpable, human, pitiful.
And estimated 800 migrants died last weekend when a boat transporting them capsized. Most of the people, who came largely from Africa and Bangladesh, were locked in the boat’s hold by the traffickers.
The dilemma faced by Western Europe’s liberal democracies is that there are no good choices, no intervention of any kind that can staunch the conflicts and brutalities from which these migrants flee.
The truth is, all options have been tried before.
Those who supported the British-American intervention in Iraq in 2003, including myself, did so because of the horror of Saddam Hussein. His record of oppression of his own people, of rapacity toward his neighbors and encouragement of terrorists was unparalleled.
Much the same rationale was mobilized in a less contentious (and much less extensive) intervention by the British and French in Libya, giving air and logistic support to rebels fighting to oust Moammar Gadhafi.
In both cases, the dictator was found and killed. In both cases, the hell that was unleashed against the dictators has been magnified and prolonged after the “mission accomplished” message went out on Western TV screens.
In both cases, too, the promoters and supporters of intervention were assailed for their bellicosity, their ignorance and their neo-imperialism. This despite the fact that a majority of lawmakers in the countries approved the moves and had majorities of their populations behind them.
Then came Syria, and no outside power intervened in its civil war. The killing has gone on, remorselessly, for four years, with a death toll estimated at some quarter of a million and with millions of Syrians now refugees. Some of them fled to the people smugglers in North Africa; some are now drowned.
This dilemma certainly has horns, and the West is impaled on them. On the one side, intervention unleashes horror. On the other, nonintervention permits it. In both cases, the winners have been the most extreme jihadists, Islamic State metastasizing from al Qaeda into a multinational army that rules part of Libya and advertises its barbarity on social media — medieval cruelty on iPhone 6s. And the consequences — the men and women who would risk drowning rather than stay in place — are the bitter liquor distilled from the grapes of wrath of the past decade.
Europe remains transfixed before the issue. The solutions mooted to date have been themselves cruel. One was to scale back the “Mare Nostrum” exercise — under which the Italian navy and coast guard patrolled the stretch of sea between Libya and the first Italian landfall — on the ground that the more dangerous the crossing became, the fewer migrants would cross. Ignorant of this, or uncaring, the migrants increased. The present plan, under consideration by European Union ministers, is to destroy the traffickers’ boats and detain the traffickers themselves, as Italian police have already begun to do.
Europe is, grudgingly, beginning to accept some of the thousands of migrants who flood into Italy, with large differences in generosity. Germany has specified 30,000; Britain — its Conservative-led government facing an election in early May in which immigration fears are a large issue — a few hundred.
Libya, where migrants and traffickers meet, is now a site of warring groups. The elected government has fled Tripoli and is huddled in the eastern city of Tobruk. The traffickers negotiate their way across this landscape, paying off the warlords as they go with the migrants’ money.
Mohamed Mahdi Hoderi, a member of Libya’s powerless parliament, said: “They [traffickers] are a network of armed gangs, not militias. They take people from one border to another and then to the Libyan coast and then across the sea. We can’t stop this because authorities are weaker than those gangs.” Italy, which has the most to lose from an extremist-governed Libya, will not intervene militarily.
But even if the West chooses to intervene, the recent past offers clear evidence that the outcome may be no better than the current circumstances.
John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Senior Research Fellow. Lloyd has written several books, including What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine.