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The Observer view on the Greek migrant boat tragedy: the west must admit responsibility | Observer editorial

The nationalities of the several hundred people assumed to have drowned in the latest, terrible migrant boat tragedy in the Mediterranean help explain why they attempted so perilous a journey. Pakistanis, Egyptians, Syrians, Afghans and Palestinians reportedly comprised most of the approximately 750 passengers crammed on to the unseaworthy vessel that set off from Tobruk in Libya and sank 50 miles off the coast of Greece last Wednesday.

The list of countries of origin is an index of pain, for which the EU, Britain and their allies bear much responsibility. The west’s failure to stop the Syrian regime’s war on its people led to the 2015-16 migrant crisis, when hundreds of thousands of Syrians sought safety in Europe. Although fighting has subsided, many, including Palestinians living in desperate conditions in camps in the war-torn country, still flee persecution by a vengeful regime, or are quitting an increasingly unaccommodating Turkey.

It can be no surprise that Afghans were aboard the boat. The decision by the UK and European Nato members to join the US in abandoning Afghanistan in 2021 triggered a predictable crisis. The UN says 28.3 million people, two-thirds of the population, will need urgent humanitarian assistance this year. Despotic Taliban rule makes matters worse. Little wonder people resort to desperate measures.

This argument may be extended further, to include people from other neglected, post-colonial countries in the Horn of Africa, the Sahel and South Asia, whose sense of hopelessness, impoverishment and chronic insecurity fuels migration.

Last week’s tragedy has produced a torrent of recriminations. The Greek coastguard is criticised for not doing more or acting fast enough to help the stricken trawler. The official story of what happened at sea appears to change daily. Greece’s government is again under fire, given its recently toughened anti-migrant stance and previous, shocking cases of boat “pushback”. Several alleged people smugglers have been arrested. Any investigation must be thorough and impartial. Yet there’s no mystery about the roots of the never-ending migrant crisis.

European countries, including Britain, have persistently failed to develop a humane, coherent and effective approach to the challenges posed by irregular migration. After the 2015-16 influx, Germany’s Angela Merkel cut a one-off deal with Turkey to curb refugee flows. A subsequent agreement with Libya did not halt abuses in detention camps or new sailings. Brussels is now discussing payments to Tunisia. For its part, Britain cut a random deal with Rwanda, in breach of international law.

Yet overall, efforts to deter these dangerous voyages, in the Mediterranean and the Channel, are foundering, with the numbers of crossings and deaths rising this year. Far too few safe, legal routes exist. And international coordination is lacking. Whether the new EU-wide migration and asylum pact will make any difference is questionable. Anti-immigrant governments in Poland and Hungary remain averse to helping “frontline” states such as Italy and Greece. Meanwhile, migration is becoming a hot political issue again as far-right parties advance across Europe.

Short-term fixes and Rwanda-type wheezes will not prevent more tragedies. The need to recognise fundamental causes and tackle migration challenges at source is urgent. That must mean expanded, systemic cooperation wherever politically possible with countries of origin and transit. It means offering more (not less) development aid and assistance. It means acknowledging food insecurity, inequality, conflict and climate crisis – key drivers of irregular migration – are problems the west helped create.

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 250 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at observer.letters@observer.co.uk

Observer editorial

Published: 2023-06-17 18:23:00

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