While the EU is actively responding to the “death boats” tragedy that has seen thousands of bodies washed ashore in Europe, the Arab world seems to be unconcerned about the victims or the issue that concerns us more than anyone else. Almost all of those boats set sail with their human cargo from Arab Mediterranean countries, with Syrians, Palestinians, Egyptians, Sudanese, Moroccans and Somalis accounting for a considerable proportion of the victims. The issue sheds light once again on the tragic situation in Libya which, due the chaos there, has turned into a hub of human-trafficking networks.
Over the past few days, the humanitarian and political dimensions of the crisis have received wide news coverage. After the drowning of more than 1,000 asylum seekers on board a boat within 24 hours, EU leaders have rushed to hold an emergency meeting to discuss the issue on Thursday.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has cut short his election campaign to discuss the humanitarian crisis that has shaken the public conscience and raised many tough questions. Meanwhile, the Arab world seems to be completely removed from the crisis.
No one knows exactly the number of the victims of the “death boats.” There are bodies that are not recovered and boats that sink without a trace. More than 20,000 people have died since 2000, mostly in the Mediterranean, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). Those were among hundreds of thousands of mostly young migrants driven by frustration to risk their lives in an attempt to reach European shores in search of safety, job opportunities, or a dream of a better life. Last year alone, more than 125,000 people managed to reach Europe on board these boats, with the Italian coast alone receiving 100,000 of them. Those are among the lucky ones who escaped being swallowed by sea or killed by smuggling cartels. According to aid agencies, boat migrants are exposed to many threats including looting, physical and sexual assaults, being thrown off crowded boats or left stranded in the middle of the sea by the fleeing crews of those worn out boats.
EU leaders will not only be discussing the humanitarian dimension of the crisis, but will also aim to tackle the political, economic and security issues associated with it. Immigration has become a thorny and extremely controversial issue in Europe, particularly after the recent economic crises and unemployment problems on the continent, as well as the upsurge of extremist far-right parties and racist groups who capitalize on such issues. In France and Britain, for example, the growing support received by far-right movements has made them aspire to play a larger political role in their respective countries, not only with regard to immigration issues but also in determining the future of the entire EU. The leader of France’s National Front, Marine Le Pen, who is also a presidential hopeful, is playing the economic crisis and anti-immigration cards in a bid to win the elections. Nigel Farage of Britain’s UK Independence Party (UKIP) is doing the same. According to polls, UKIP is heading in the general elections in May to gain its highest number of votes since it was established.
The security dimension of the discussion is related to fears that terrorist groups will use these waves of migrants washing on European shores as a way to get its cadres into Europe. Ever since the situation in Libya deteriorated and the North African country got sucked into a seemingly endless vortex of war and chaos, Western political circles have warned of the consequences this may have on Europe amid fears that terrorist organizations, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), will utilize this influx of people as a means to smuggle its fighters into Europe. Following the slaughter of Egyptian and Ethiopian workers in Libya by ISIS and the threats the extremist group has made towards Europe, the EU has started to think seriously about taking measures to counter the threats and restrict the waves of migrants coming through the Mediterranean.
The EU has introduced a 10-point plan to counter the migration crisis. It includes cracking down on human trafficking networks and destroying their boats, expanding naval monitoring operations, collecting information and checking newcomers’ IDs and scanning finger prints. Those measures may limit the flow of refugees but will only achieve the required effect through achieving larger cooperation with the concerned countries, including Arab ones, as well as exerting larger efforts to address the chaos in Libya.
The migrants crisis may open a window for greater attention to the situation in Libya. With Europe talking about the need to address the crisis politically, Arab players, if they were to take action, have an opportunity to push towards saving Libya before it turns into a completely failed state, a development that would prove costly for everyone, particularly Arabs.