On the shores of the Mediterranean, we are about to witness a great magic trick. Over the next few weeks the bodies of migrants trying to make it to Europe will disappear.
The British government has already tried once to make the boats themselves disappear. In October 2014, it withdrew support for extended search-and-rescue patrols. The stated reason was that the patrols would encourage more people to take to boats because they knew they would be rescued; the unstated hope was that any future boats would simply come ashore – or sink – without public notice.
But that trick didn’t work for a number of reasons. The public already knew the people were there and a backlash was quickly building against the decision to stop rescuing them. What’s more, there was both a ready supply of desperate people willing to get into the boats and there was an established business model of smuggling (and sometimes trafficking) these people across the Mediterranean.
But this time the trick will succeed. This time European governments will target and destroy the boats. The aim is, in the military vernacular to pursue the “neutralisation of smugglers vessels and assets”. We are led to believe that there will be no more boats on which to embark. But the real magic will occur where we are not looking. Like any great magic trick, the disappearance of the boats relies upon the theatre of misdirection.
In the coming months, “partnership” agreements with governments in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia will provide incentives for those states to intercept, detain and deport migrants and refugees before they even get onto the boats.
The EU has begun to negotiate with Eritrea to impose tougher border controls in a bid to catch those who would otherwise flee the persecution of that very same state. Meanwhile, the EU also plans to disperse those who do manage to arrive (though not to the UK). If the EU doesn’t take this action, Italy’s Plan B is to do this itself by releasing and regularising new arrivals for travel through a borderless Europe.
While we are paying attention to the few boats that are seized or set ablaze, the supply of migrants and refugees will be diminished and the remainder of the boats will simply not set sail. And those who do embark will embark on longer and more diverse journeys to Europe. They will travel to discrete coves or by land and plane to a range of destinations throughout Europe. Those that do arrive will be quickly dispersed, away from the beaches of holidaymakers and the eyes of the media.
Tried and tested
In both places, militaries are taking over in an attempt to solve the problem. In the case of the Rohingya, the Thai navy used to simply tow the boats back out to sea, only for them to come ashore elsewhere more secretly. Now the Burmese military stops the boats from leaving. The Bangladesh government has also coincidentally announced plans to relocate the refugee camps housing the Rohingya to a more remote location.
Meanwhile, Australian operations to tackle the boats are shrouded in the kind of secrecy usually confined to military operations. There are reliable accounts of smugglers being paid to turn their boats around. And Australia is spending millions of dollars trying to strengthen the ability of transit states to intercept the boats.
Looking the other way
But the real magic trick isn’t about making the boats disappear. The real magic is in distracting us from what causes them to appear in the first place – horrific conditions in countries of origin and the lack of any protection in countries of transit.
In the Mediterranean, the vast majority of those taking to the sea are trying to escape Syria and Eritrea. The former is a humanitarian catastrophe and one of the most dangerous places on Earth; the latter is forcing its people into endless military service. The states that host Syrian and Eritrean refugees in transit continue to receive inadequate support from the international community and to offer inadequate protections.
Making the boats go away is a magic trick; it is an illusion. The root causes of the migratory flows to European shores will remain and won’t be solved either by bombing boats or outsourcing border controls to neighbouring states. And the people, the vulnerable migrants and refugees, will remain, simply out of sight.
Even more troubling, like all magic, there is a profound complicity between the audience and magician: we don’t want to confront the hopelessness that drives people to embark in risky voyages across the Mediterranean. Until we confront this truth – and resolve to address it – our politicians will continue to wave their wands and shout abracadabra.