In a seriously frightening display of anti-immigrant sentiment, it appears that Europe’s “fear of foreigners,” as one U.N. official put it, has contributed to the death of thousands of African migrants after a series of illegal smuggling ships capsized in the Mediterranean this weekend.
In three separate incidents, boats packed to dangerous capacity with Africans fleeing their war-torn home countries, either capsized or ended up in distress in the Mediterranean, resulting in hundreds drowning. Smugglers, who prey on the hopes of the migrants hoping for a better life, were said to have packed the boats with as many as 950 people. Some passengers, including women and children, were said to have been placed in cages like cattle.
Europe has long known about the horrific problem of smugglers and pretty much done nothing at all for fear of angering the rising tide of anti-immigrant parties, as well as a desire to prevent an influx of migrants from Africa and Asia coming into the E.U.
The chaos of this weekend’s wrecks began Sunday when a 75-foot fishing vessel carrying nearly 1,000 people capsized off the coast of Libya. The boat was said to have turned over when a majority of the passengers tried to move to one side of the vessel to attract the attention of a nearby rescue vote. 900 people are thought to have drowned when they plunged into the frigid sea. The 50 or so people who were rescued told stories of women and children drowning in cages packed to capacity by the brutal smugglers.
But while that frightening incident may have been the worst in terms of the number of deaths, it was hardly the first or last of its kind. More than 1,500 migrants have died this year alone, according to reports. On Monday, another boat sank off the coast of the Greek island of Rhodes, killing three. And just days earlier, another 400 people were believed to have drowned in a similar wreck in the Mediterranean.
Now European leaders have proposed doubling the size of their Mediterranean search and rescue operations, but many fear it is too late.
Moreover, even their responses appear to be saturated with the fear of too many foreigners coming to their country, rather than an actual value for human life.
In Germany, Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said, “if you just organize search and rescues, criminals who get the refugees on board will send more boats.”
In Italy, similar waves of hostility have seemingly halted efforts to save the migrants desperate for a better life.
Last year, an Italian naval operation known as “Mare Nostrum,” designed to provide comprehensive rescue efforts in the Mediterranean, was canceled. Not only because of cost, but also for fear that the sea rescues would only encourage more Libyans to come to Europe.
Something needs to be done and fast. How many people have to die before an entire continent wakes up to see that turning a blind eye to the situation is a cowardly and deadly move?
As Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni said Monday, “reality has hit us in the face.”