I grew up with the powerful images of migrants trying to reach Italian shores: a succession of tragedies in the newspapers involving desperate migrants, brutal traffickers and inadequate responses from the European Union and the wider international community.
It is not by accident that one of my first steps in politics was through what in Italian is called ‘accoglienza’: the politics of welcoming those who were fleeing desperation, hunger or violence. At the time I was in Trieste, at the border with the stormy Balkans. I remember vividly when the then foreign secretaries of Italy and Albania authorised a naval blockade of the Mediterranean. That year, on Good Friday, an Italian military ship capsized an Albanian fishing boat, the Kater I Rades, and over 100 people died.
The truth is that over the years the Mediterranean has become a cemetery. Worse, those deaths have become the norm, together with stories of compassion, the hard work of the Italian coast guard, the heroism of fishermen trying to help during endless nights bringing people safely to shore in Lampedusa, the small Italian island capable of holding hundreds but now hosting thousands of migrants – and the lack of collective action from Europe.
Now with a huge figure – up to 950 lives lost in one sinking – the silence about these men, women and children is no longer an option. As EU policy chief Federica Mogherini said this morning ahead of the foreign affairs ministers’ meeting in Luxembourg: we have a duty to stop these tragedies from happening again.
First, we need to understand that nobody can act alone. These drownings are no longer an emergency but a grim routine that needs to be dealt with as such. Italy is not the final destination for migrants fleeing Syria and other countries and a common sense of responsibility has to be built among all the European countries. Mare Nostrum, the Italian search-and-rescue mission that saved more than 100,000 people at sea in 12 months, was discontinued last autumn following a row over funding and Italian exasperation that it was shouldering the burden of responsibility alone. At that point the British government said that we were not prepared to support any new operation as that would have encouraged more migrants to come. Such a position is totally unacceptable, as Ed Miliband pointed out yesterday.
The other issue is to recognise that these migrants are not only victims of hunger, violence and desperation in the countries where they come from: they are victims of international organised crime profiteering from human misery. Those are the ones we need to stop. However, this cannot be done without the cooperation of the countries in which those smugglers operate and that is why it is crucial to find a solution to the situation in Libya, with a transition government settling in and providing some stability the country. This must be a key priority for the international community as historically Libya has been the gateway to Europe of all the problems and instability factors affecting the Mediterranean and Africa.
Finally, it is important that we play a role in shaping a common response to this issue which cannot dealt with either on a purely humanitarian approach – or on a purely security-based approach. The former would not be possible in the current political climate, and the latter would not work. The key is to develop a joint EU policy based on: solidarity; firm action against smugglers and criminals; the creation of safe-havens, where requests for asylum can be dealt with in an orderly but humane way; and a role for the international community in supporting the transition faced in Libya so it can help tackle criminal organisations also through cooperation with regional actors, including Egypt.
Even more than its finances and the situation in Greece, I think this will be the real challenge for the EU.
Ivana Bartoletti is chair of Fabian Women’s Network and a former adviser to the government of Romano Prodi. She tweets @IvanaBartoletti
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.