Death by omission

Just been to the Disappearance at Sea – Mare Nostrum exhibition at the Baltic Gallery in Gateshead. It covers how the EU is dealing with migration and particularly the issue of boat crossings of migrants and refugees from North Africa and the Middle East crossing the Mediterranean to western Europe. Hundreds of people regularly pile onto small coastal fishing boats, if that, and venture onto voyages of between a few and a few hundred miles across the sea, at all times of year, at any time of day or night. And inevitably, regularly, many 100s die.

And this is how the EU seems to want it. The EU responds by ‘death by omission’. Targeted negligence. For it has the surveillance technology, the patrol boats, the ships, the air-sea search aircraft and drones, even satellites, to watch for these approaching vessels, and has the rescue vessels and ships to send to intercept if it’s thought the need is there. But they don’t, no rescue vessels are deployed, instead they warn merchant ships in the vicinity – be that hours of sailing time away – that there may be boats in need of assistance, in a kind of ‘semi-privatisation’ of rescue operations. Not as in the UK model where they’ve sold off Search and Rescue to some American company for profit (why?), but as in, no state forces are deployed, so instead request cargo freighters to go help the hundreds for the sheer sake of humanity, a humanity the EU’s policymakers are desperately bereft of.

And it’s these cargo ships, modern cargo ships with 15 metre high sides, laden atop another 10 metres with container boxes, sent to pick up little people from the sea. They are not rescue vessels, they’re massive, unmanoeuverable things. Do they even have rope ladders or old cargo nets to throw over the sides for people in peril in the water to scramble up? Do they have searchlights aboard? Even blankets? Any facilities at all to warm up 100s of people suffering severe hypothermia (people who would be unable to climb the side of ship in any circumstance).

One instance exhibited told of a boat from Libya with some 600 aboard (no accurate figures of course), they might as well have been aboard a dinner tray, and this boat then went and collided with the ship that had been directed to help, and the boat overturned and most aboard it went down with it. This was at half past nine at night in April 2015, it’s dark already, the sea’s as good as at its coldest from winter.

The exhibit had a graphic charting the course of the ships sent to help this boat and its hapless rescuer, which grows into a mess of loops and squiggly lines as these tanking great ships with turning circles of half a mile and stopping distances of even more scrabble in the darkness in pursuit of fading shouts of 100s of people, all drifting apart and away into the pitch black. Simply deadly chaos. What must it be like for the crews of those ships, thrust into rescue operations they’re not trained for with nothing like the equipment they need to hear those voices trail off and disappear with the bodies into the deep.

In one week in April 2015 some 1,200 people lost their lives attempting to cross. Now that’s on a par with the number that went down on the Titanic. The whole world’s heard of the Titanic, this seminal event from over a century ago. Yet that many can die in a week in the Med, and it might get a mention on the news, but it might not.

One of the myths of the Titanic’s tragedy is so many aboard died because they were of the lower classes and kept below decks while the upper class got first dibs on the lifeboats. But however true or untrue was this murderously rigid social hierarchy then, it’s surely as true now for how the EU treats non-EU people at the lowest points in their lives. They can drown with their children in the freezing dark, it’s OK, they’re foreign and come from lesser lands. The real concern is if they actually make landfall and start claiming benefits and blowing things up …

Those that make it safely would be the ones we’ve seen in Paris, bechained with crappy metal figurines of the Eiffel Tower or selfie-sticks, or in Madrid with these parachutes stalls of shoes and handbags, ready to pull up and run at the glimpse of a policeman.

There’s a book out that makes the point about how Italy’s bombing of Libya in 2011 marked the centenary of states bombing other states. In a way the technology is simply an ever more enhanced means of countries projecting power or whatever their agenda is by lobbing high explosives at their supposed foes. What’s changed in that time, however? How far do the means justify the ends, or do the means supersede them? What’s not changed is there’s always the technology and money and the will to kill people, but never enough to save them.

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