The Blog

People Are Dying: Confronting the Pirates of the Mediterranean

We face the usual mid-year Mediterranean crisis. There is a new government in Libya, but organised criminals and traffickers - as well as terrorist groups - are still in full control of the most dangerous migration route available for people desperate enough to risk it.

After a flimsy boat carrying almost 600 people capsized in the Mediterranean this week, the Prime Minister has announced that the UK will send a Royal Navy warship to tackle arms smuggling and people trafficking from Libya.

David Cameron should be commended for trying to take some leadership in what has been a rudderless European response to the chaos in Libya. However, as high summer approaches, this may be too little, too late.

We face the usual mid-year Mediterranean crisis. There is a new government in Libya, but organised criminals and traffickers - as well as terrorist groups - are still in full control of the most dangerous migration route available for people desperate enough to risk it.

As all of the EU's efforts to tackle the migration crisis have obsessively focused on Turkey in recent months - culminating in a deal which must have led to relief and delight across Ankara - one has to ask, did Europe's leaders really forget about Libya?

Witless Whitehall

Let us forget about the EU for a moment (with just over 20 days remaining until the referendum, it is difficult to do I know), and look at the UK's response so far.

Just over a month ago, when the Foreign Secretary gave the House of Commons an update on the situation in Libya after a rare visit to Tripoli, I asked whether or not we had asked permission to enter Libyan coastal waters to stop the people traffickers.

He responded:

"May I say to the right hon. Gentleman, whose question, I am sure, is well motivated, that he is approaching this in exactly the wrong way?" and "I have one bunch of people in this House who are primarily concerned to ensure that we do not have any foreigners going into Libya, and, on the other, the right hon. Gentleman who is desperately keen to get some foreign naval forces into its territorial waters."

Only a month on, this reply looks simply ridiculous. It was as if he had a common sense bypass. I and others have not been asking for British forces to land in Libya to stabilise the government. We had been warning for several months that the way to stop the deaths in the Mediterranean was to bring those criminal elements who are exploiting and trafficking human beings to justice.

I was a little surprised at the time, particularly given that the Prime Minister had said only a few weeks before that he would actually support sending ships into Libyan coastal waters. I wonder if he was admonished by Mr Hammond for being "desperately keen".

This strategy, which has been called for by the Italian government for years, now looks likely to be requested by the Libyan authorities, who have already asked the EU for assistance in stopping people trafficking.

Waiting for the UN

Following today's announcement, some may feel that we are stepping up our game and being rather more dynamic in taking on the human traffickers.

But then the Prime Minister said something which should fill anyone familiar with international bureaucracy with dread. Namely that only "once the relevant permissions and UN security council resolution are in place" will the deployment of the UK's vessel be possible.

Sorry. Are vessels not already in the Mediterranean? Has the Government of National Accord in Libya not already asked for our help?

Why on earth are we waiting for the United Nations? Are people not dying as I write this article because of the inertia of international organisations?

There has been an 80% increase in the number of crossings between Libya and Italy this year compared to 2015. This time last year, half a million people were waiting in Libya to get to Italy. The consultation, permissions and box-ticking should have been done months ago, not in June.

What are Italy doing?

Ultimately, this crisis will hit Italy the hardest.

The swift response of the Italian Navy to last week's capsizing demonstrate the good work they are doing to save lives, with almost 6,000 rescued from the Mediterranean in the last few weeks alone.

That said, this is not a solution. Upon arrival in Italy, it would be foolish to suggest that these migrants wish to remain there, and clearly little is being done to stop them from travelling onto Germany, Sweden or indeed Calais, with the destination of the UK in mind.

More disappointingly, the much-vaunted 'hot-spots' announced to great fanfare as a solution to this crisis have been staggeringly slow to set up. These centres, to allow proper processing and identification of arrivals have as much importance to our security as they do for trying to 'control' migration.

So when the reports in the press allege that Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has been involving himself in the selection of the Italian national football team's manager, one cannot help but sigh. Surely he has bigger fish to fry.

Yes this is a European problem, and to be fair the Italian government has been banging on and on about this for years, but we all need to take ownership of this.

Turkish Delight

Look at what has been done with Turkey. The EU negotiates a deal giving Turkey visa-free travel for some of its citizens, €3billion in aid and the possibility of talks on future accession to the EU. In return, Turkey will take back migrants who have already travelled through Turkey to Greece and promise to secure its own borders.

It is desperate stuff from a continent expecting almost a million migrants to arrive this year.

That said, the latest figures from UNHCR do show a marked drop in the number of arrivals in Greece since the deal was put into force. Though what that really shows is how easily Turkey could have stopped this from happening in the first place.

The real issue however, is that all of this has been at the expense of any equivalent deal with Libya.

Where is our big pitch to the newly formed Libyan authorities? Turkey get €3billion and Libya get the Prime Minister's boat (subject to UN approval) - the Libyan government needs better negotiators.

Our mission in the Mediterranean has abjectly failed to disrupt people trafficking or arms smuggling.

This is a failed state on Europe's doorstep, and Europe has fiddle-faddled its way to achieving nothing. Where has our preventative work been to stop people leaving Libya in the first place?

Pushing No Boats Out

At its core, this crisis has been an utter failure of the European Union.

I say this as somebody who supports our membership of the EU, who believes in what such a Union can achieve. On the migration crisis however, we have seen the very worst this organisation has to offer in bureaucracy, delays, so-called 'compromise', inaction and weak leadership.

For any observer of the 'strategies' and 'emergency summit' outcomes the EU has put forward, it must appear that it couldn't organise a bun fight in a Brussels bakery.

There is no simple proposal or suggestion to be made. We are just screaming out for competent leadership, for somebody who can bring all of the organisation's moving parts together and get some results.

This includes giving Frontex the resources it has desperately needed for years. Proposals to transform the organisation to a European Border Guard may be the best option at this stage, but unsurprisingly this proposal has come too late, and will likely take too long to be implemented.

There is an important point to make about our domestic politics here. I was one of the first Labour MPs to join calls for a referendum on our membership of the EU. I saw this as an opportunity for a genuine debate about what we expect the EU to do, and what needs to be changed. I am sorry to say that those campaigning to stay have completely failed to foster this kind of practical or serious discussion.

What Next?

Almost exactly one year ago I made a speech in the House of Commons on this very issue. Looking back, all of the themes were exactly the same. Some of the proposed 'solutions' have changed, but the problems are identical to those today.

In fact, the only difference may be that - because the Turkey-Greece route is being closed - many more people than ever before may take the perilous decision to travel to Libya, pay some incredibly dangerous men their life savings, and risk death in the Mediterranean.

So, whilst the Prime Minister has done the right thing today, it can only be seen as one part of what must be a much bigger and better strategy to take control of this crisis.

On Tuesday 7 June the Home Affairs Select Committee will be hearing evidence from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, on the migration crisis, somebody who has shown moral authority on this issue.

He described events in the Mediterranean as "the most appalling and enormous crises that the world has faced". He is right, and if there was a chance for a modern political leader to leave a legacy behind them, this is their final opportunity to rise to the challenge.

Keith Vaz is the Labour MP for Leicester East and chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee