The return of the LE Eithne from its duties in the Mediterranean rescuing over 3000 refugees as part of Operation Pontus is rightfully a source of pride for the Irish people. When we see images of children being lifted from leaking boats we should indeed be proud of our Naval Service and their ability to play our part in the European operation to deal with the Mediterranean crisis.
Despite those images, we must be careful to realise that getting them safely onto Irish vessels, or even into an Italian port is not the end of the problem. As UN special representative on migration Peter Sutherland has pointed out, it simply isn’t fair to let the so-called frontline states like Italy carry the burden for what is essentially a European problem. Indeed, by showing such little support to Italy, we can hardly be surprised if Italian police then show a blind eye to those same migrants attempting to leave Italy and travel further into the European Union. This is a European problem that needs a European solution.
This crisis is almost the perfect storm in terms of political problems. Letting refugees into Europe, and essentially telling European citizens that we cannot control our own borders is fuelling the rise of the extremist far right. Abandoning refugees to their fate is morally unacceptable. Is the third option a recognition, therefore, that we must confront the reasons why so many people seek a new life in Europe?
We cannot blame people for seeking a better life for themselves and their families. Indeed, it is an awkward compliment that despite all the self-criticism Europe goes through, it is still seen as a land of peace, new hope and promise to so many. Therefore, if we do not want them to die, and do not want them in continental Europe, does it not mean that Europe must play a more robust role in creating a stable space in North Africa? In the past both Tony Blair and various German ministers have suggested the setting up of refugee camps in North Africa. But is creating vast camps just another short term solution? Instead, should the EU, with the consent of legitimate powers in the region, consider going further in terms of creating a stability zone, enforced by European troops, to act as a de facto magnet and processing centre for would-be refugees, and to relieve pressure on Italy and Greece by having somewhere safe to send them?
It is true, such a proposal has a hint of 19th Century White Man’s Burden about it. But let us be honest: we are faced with a desire by hundreds of thousands of people who wish to live under European government in Europe. Would helping them build some of that stability in a tiny piece of North Africa be such a bad thing? It is a radical concept. But given the scale of the crisis and its repercussions for European politics, reasonable men and women should consider all reasonable options.
The LE Niamh has replaced the Eithne on station, to permit the Eithne’s crew a well-earned rest, and will no doubt play just as significant a role in this humanitarian crisis. But it is a misuse of our professional military personnel to expect them to deal with the problem in the middle of the sea whilst their political masters in Dublin and Brussels remain paralysed by indecision and refuse to craft a credible long-term response to this crisis.