Grant Woodward: As migrants perish, their smugglers blackmail us

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WHO would be Britain? When a boatload of refugees, herded like veal calves into a container and then put under lock and key, perish in the Mediterranean, it is somehow we who must don the sackcloth and ashes.

Never mind that these poor souls were exploited by people smugglers preying on their desperation. Never mind the fact we barely have room for the migrants we have now. Never mind that we continue to dole out billions in foreign aid in order to improve the lot of those countries from where this exodus originates.

No, the consensus is that it is we who are culpable. We who must do more, pay more to prevent such tragedies from recurring.

There is no little irony in the fact that it is the European Union which is now engaged in a firefighting mission to rescue the situation. Without its open door policy of allowing economic migrants to quit their home lands for Britain, we might have enough space for more of those who are not just looking to earn better money but to flee persecution, torture and death.

Characteristically, the EU’s blundering response misses the point entirely. Its foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the 10-point package agreed in the wake of the 800 deaths off the coast of Libya showed that “we are developing a truly European sense of solidarity in fighting human trafficking”.

But this is patently not trafficking. That is when people are taken against their will and parcelled off to some distant western country and put to work on behalf of modern-day slavemasters.

These migrants are leaving the likes of Syria, Eritrea and Somalia of their own free will – even if it’s only because it is 
the least bad option – and paying hundreds, sometimes thousands, of pounds for the privilege.

Take out a few smugglers and more will be only too happy to take their places. And how on earth can we expect to break the sprawling spider’s web of “trafficking” networks that span north Africa when we can’t even get to grips with the real traffickers, presently at work in Britain, who are responsible for reported cases here rising by a fifth in just one year?

The answer, surely, is to remove the reasons for migrants wanting to risk life and limb to get to northern Europe. But if that is not happening as a result of the £11bn a year we pay in overseas aid, then what more can be done? Perhaps it is time, for starters, to stop sending taxpayers’ money to the likes of India, poised to become one of the world’s leading economies, and divert more to those nations with greater needs.

As for the smugglers, if enforcement is unrealistic then how do we go about stopping them? One smuggling kingpin, calling himself Hajj, bragged in the wake of this latest tragedy that he and his ilk are effectively holding Britain and the rest of Europe to ransom.

He called on the EU to invest in local infrastructure for the marginalised Amazigh minority in Libya, who run so many of the country’s smuggling networks. Apparently it was not enough that British armed forces helped rebels to topple Colonel Gaddafi, ending a brutal regime that had spanned more than four decades.

Most smuggling operations, he said, were suspended while he and others waited to see if the EU and the post-dictatorship Libya would give greater recognition to his people. When help failed to materialise, operations recommenced. “If you’re not protecting me,” this Hajj character told the Guardian newspaper, “I will not protect you. I’ll put pressure on you.”

This is not a cry for human rights, it is blackmail, pure and simple. Highly lucrative blackmail at that, given that Hajj says delivering a boatload of migrants to Europe nets him £14,500 a time. But these are the sort of people we are dealing with. Criminals without consciences who barely bat an eyelid when hundreds of men, women and children who entrusted them with their lives drown in the Mediterranean. We should not give in to their blackmail, even without factoring in the suspicion that many of these smugglers have links with the so-called Islamic State.

There can be no question that the fate of so many desperate migrants is a humanitarian disaster – and one without a simple solution. Yet a small, crowded island whose population is rising by an unsustainable 400,000 people a year should not be expected to bear the weight of responsibility for its tragic unfolding.

What of countries like France, Germany and Italy? Are they willing to take their share of those fleeing the killing fields of Sub-Saharan Africa?

Perhaps the best hope is a triage system such as that operated in Australia, where migrant boats which evade the country’s naval patrols are taken to the Pacific islands of Nauru or Papua New Guinea, where they are detained while asylum claims are processed. Migrants are then matched with a country that will resettle them. Operated in concert with other EU countries – and allied to better targeted help which encourages potential migrants to stay put – such a policy might just might save others from perishing on these deadly crossings and restore much-needed order to Britain’s borders.