Libya demands a new solution for its problems

If human values mean anything at all, the international community must intervene to tackle the death of migrants in seas, writes HA Hellyer

Migrants cross seas to escape violence but many of them face death. Francesco Pecoraro / AP
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The world witnessed a terrible tragedy recently when 30 Ethiopian Christian citizens were killed by ISIL-linked elements in Libya. But even if these Ethiopians had survived that gruesome attack by extremists, another terrible fate might have awaited them.

The Ethiopians were migrants, and might well have perished on their journey to Europe. But while the deaths of those dozens in the grasp of radical extremists rock the world, the thousands of migrants who die every year trying to reach Europe from the Libyan coast, does not always.

In both cases, the international community has passed off responsibility for far too long. Libya’s festering crisis is not something that will remain in Libya alone – it has repercussions for the region, the European continent and the international community.

Just a few days ago, Barack Obama declared that Arab governments had to step up and take more responsibility for the problems in their region. He is right – no one can more effectively tackle the problems of this region than those in it. But no one should be under any doubt that these are European and western issues as well.

Every year, thousands of people try to reach Europe illegally by sea. In the past 10 days, according to the Italian coastguard, more than 10,000 people have arrived on Italian shores from Libya. The International Organisation for Migration notes that almost 22,000 people have died on similar voyages since 2000. Just this year, around 1,750 have met that fate. Those numbers will increase substantially if dramatic action is not taken.

Justin Forsyth, Save the Children’s CEO, noted that yesterday’s European emergency summit was “a matter of life and death”. As he put it, hundreds of innocent lives are “drowning in politics”, as governments fail to take active and effective measures to address this problem. One of those measures must be to restart search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

Mr Forsyth notes that Europe is slipping “further into an immoral abyss”. But it is not merely Europe that is falling fast – it is all governments and authorities around the Mediterranean Sea that have the ability to assist in the resolution of this problem. Whether we like it or not, we do not exist in an unconnected world where countries can fence themselves off. We can try – but people die as a result. Italian officials estimated last year there were around 600,000 migrants in Libya waiting to find a way to cross to Europe. They will not stay in Libya.

When the Libyan crisis remains so low on the priority list for the international community, it is Libyans who suffer as a consequence. But we shouldn’t pretend that it will only be them who will be affected.

A recent report by The Guardian shows that frustrations within Libya at the country’s predicament not only lead to Libyans wanting to head to Europe – but also result in criminals and smugglers looking at Europe as a partner to the disaster.

Unfortunately, far too many on the southern side of the Mediterranean, and further afield in the Arab world and Middle East, continue to view the problem as one Europeans can and should sort out. Too many on the northern side treat it as a border protection issue. The entire framing is deeply problematic.

Illegal migrants are not an abstract security issue – they die in their thousands every year, and must be treated as a dire humanitarian cause, as Pope Francis has noted.

Many of them are fleeing political violence, and under international conventions should be treated as protected persons – refugees or asylum seekers. Instead, unfortunately, far too many still continue to look at this from deeply xenophobic standpoints, with right-wing conservatives calling for patrolling the Mediterranean with gunships, rather than rescue patrols. In addition to that, the international community fails to recognise a deeply necessary sense of urgency is absent in addressing Libya’s quagmire.

That has to change and the full force of the international community must be brought to bear. The UN process is an important one, but if it does not do anything, the world must be ready to act, constructively and effectively, in reversing the disintegration of Libya.

When extremists in Paris killed cartoonists earlier this year, scores of statesmen descended upon Paris to express their support for what they described as freedom.

The thousands dying as a result of human-trafficking are just as worthy of their respect. If human values mean anything at all, European and Arab governments, and the wider international community, must intervene to tackle this on-going disaster, in a full and comprehensive fashion. Simply leaving them to die in the sea – which effectively is what Europe and the Arab world are doing – is at best gross negligence. At worst, it is comp­licity.

Dr HA Hellyer is an associate fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London, and the Centre for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC

On Twitter: @hahellyer