World must do more to tackle root causes of why migrants are risking their lives to reach Europe

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 1:35am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 8:46pm

Lamentably, it has taken a catastrophe to force European Union leaders into action. The drowning of up to 900 refugees trying to cross from Libya to Europe, the worst maritime disaster in the Mediterranean Sea since the second world war, spurred measures that had previously been scaled back. At an emergency meeting last week, annual spending on a naval mission was tripled to US$130 million and long-term solutions were pledged. Symbolic trips are being made aboard search-and-rescue ships. But there is every possibility the tragedy would have been averted had a far-reaching policy been in place.

The decision corrects what was an obvious mistake. Funding of an Italian search-and-rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, was suspended at the end of last year and replaced by Triton, an EU border control mission with less than a third of the budget and a narrower remit. The EU's financial troubles, not a decline in refugee numbers, was the reason; between 500,000 and one million were estimated last month to be ready to leave Libya. Coupled with bad weather and the packing of more people into increasingly less sea-worthy boats, the death toll from such tragedies has now reached about 1,500 this year alone.

Poverty, conflict and persecution are driving the flood of people, half of them children. They are fleeing Libya, Eritrea, Mali, Somalia and Syria, searching for freedom and jobs. Libya is an ideal place from which to make the crossing to Europe: anarchy reigns, the result of the ill-planned overthrow of autocratic leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 by rebel groups supported by US and European airstrikes. Where before there was stability, there is now a failed state with no governance, police or security - perfect circumstances for human trafficking.

The EU has seen the error of its ways, but there is still no agreement on what to do about the refugees on a continent rife with anti-migrant sentiment. Nor is the US assisting - it was, after all, a partner in creating the mayhem in Libya. Tackling the traffickers and helping victims are only short-term solutions. More effort has to be put into dealing with the roots of the crisis.