April 24, 2015
There’s something we need to be clear on. The death of 900 refugees – we have to use that blanket term because we don’t know the names of the dead, and I suspect we never will – in the Mediterranean over the weekend was not a “tragedy”. The word tragedy implies an accidental calamity. An unfortunate confluence of space and time.
There was nothing accidental about the deaths of The 900. They were killed as a direct – and deliberate – act of government policy. EU policy. And British government policy.
In October of last year I wrote about how ministers had adopted a new strategy for dealing with the wave of children, women and men fleeing the charnel houses of Syria and Libya. It involved drowning them.
In the House of Lords, Foreign Office minister Lady Anelay announced: “We do not support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean”. The reason ministers no longer supported planned search and rescue operations was, she said, because the government believed they created “an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths”.
To her credit, Lady Anelay was clear and unambiguous about the rationale behind the decision. People currently believed that if they attempted to reach sanctuary by sea, there was a chance they would be rescued. If the rescue cover was withdrawn, they would not be rescued. They would die. And once enough of them died, then word would finally get back to Syria and Libya that there was, in fact, no prospect of rescue. At which point people would stop trying to make that perilous sea journey. Drown a migrant to save a migrant.
Well, the first part of Lady Anelay’s policy is working. Children, women and men are currently drowning in their thousands. It’s not yet clear how many more will have to drown before word finally filters down the people smuggling chain. Or if it ever will. But I trust Lady Anelay will keep Drown A Migrant To Save A Migrant under close review.
Sorry, that’s cheap. It’s not lady Anelay’s policy. She’s just a junior minister. At the end of the day it’s David Cameron’s policy. He’ll be out on the campaign trail today. I wonder if he’ll be given a running tally of the dead.
• The EU migrant crisis explained in 90 seconds
Nick Clegg will be out on the campaign trail too. Since the election started he’s been keen to point out those “red line” policy areas where the Lib Dems have held their coalition colleagues to account.
But the policy of drowning migrants to save migrants doesn’t appear to have been one of them. In the New Statesman Tim Farron, the Lib Dems’ foreign and commonwealth spokesman, wrote how the “tragic deaths” over the weekend were “a wake up call”. “We can’t just brush aside allegations that smuggling gangs were exploiting search and rescue operations because they knew that people would be saved … But we also can’t turn our backs on the people caught up in the midst of wars in Syria, in Libya, in human rights abuses in Eritrea”.
Very eloquent. But Tim Farron and his colleagues did turn their backs on those people. Which is why they are now all dead.
Someone else who’s been speaking out about “the tragedy” is Ed Miliband. Taking a break from having his photo taken with a Chester hen party, he tweeted: “Those dying in the Mediterranean are some of the poorest men, women and children in the world. We must act to stop these awful scenes. We are seeing tragic scenes for the second time in days. European leaders must work together to stop more of these drownings taking place”.
Again, very poignant and eloquent. But perhaps Ed Miliband could pause to ask himself how a policy of drowning migrants has become politically acceptable in Britain in 2015. Maybe he could have thought about it straight after unveiling what the Guardian described as “a strikingly hard stance on immigration in a key speech to supporters in Heswall, Merseyside.
As part of a five-point plan, he said it was paramount that migrants arriving in Britain should speak English. The Labour leader went further and said his party, if brought to power, would legislate to give NHS regulators the power to ensure medical staff speak English. Miliband also unveiled a crackdown on exploitation of migrant workers – not entirely born out of empathy for the plight of migrants but also to protect the negative impact such abuse has on pushing down British workers’ wages”.
Or perhaps he could have thought about it when he saw the Labour Party were proudly selling “Controls on Immigration” mugs for £5 a pop. Or as he launched Labour’s election manifesto beneath a giant red banner that announced “Britain Can Be Better” with “Controls on Immigration”.
The 900 did not fall victim to some tragic accident. They were murdered. Actually, they were massacred.
The policy stipulated they should be left to die. So they died.
The policy was put in place so ministers could look tough on immigration. And now ministers do look tough. Very, very tough.
Parties across the political spectrum have fought to convince the voters that they too believed Britain would be better if we could just get immigration under control. And the death of The 900 will have gone some way to convincing them our politicians are serious.
We have got our wish. The 900 will never set foot here. 900 jobs are safe. 900 houses available for local people. 900 hospital beds left open. 900 empty school desks.
The 900 are gone. Britain is better.