Well, thank God they made it. The Ezadeen, formerly a livestock carrier and now adapted for its human cargo of 360 people, has arrived today at Corigliano Calabro near Lecce. The Italian coastguard, which brought the vessel into port, has been conspicuously humane in its treatment of the refugees. The newborns are to have the best of care; the other migrants – abandoned, it would seem, by the crew at some point in the voyage from Turkey – have been given a courteous reception, rather than treated as criminals.
Yet these 360 Syrians follow the 796 individuals, many also from Syria and from Eritrea, abandoned by the crew of their ship earlier this week. And that is in turn part of a larger picture whereby 150,000 migrants arrived in Italy in just this last year; in Europe as a whole it was 230,000. God knows what bleak circumstances forced them to put themselves in the hands of the traffickers but I’m not sure that readers of this magazine, in the same circumstances, would not have at least contemplated doing exactly the same.
But we should bear a couple of things in mind about this grisly traffic. The Syrians now arrived in Italy paid between $4,000 and $6,000 for their passage. Many of those on deck were young and seem relatively fit. We are not talking here about the huddled masses, the human debris of the Lebanese or Jordanian refugee camps, but the more prosperous of those displaced by the conflicts in Syria and Eritrea.
If we, Europe, were to take the neediest refugees it might not be these. And if their efforts are rewarded with permanent residency in Europe, ultimately with citizenship, and in the case of those who get to Sweden, with the right to bring their families with them, then the gamble will have paid off. They have jumped the queue ahead of those perhaps more deserving of refuge abroad. They made a rational calculation about the terrible risks of going to sea with criminal traffickers and, more fortunate than those who died during the year crossing the Mediterranean (an estimated 3,500), they got lucky.
There isn’t any mystery about the demand side of this calculation but we can alter the balance of risk and reward for others making the same decision. And rather than encouraging other unfortunates from these hellholes to risk their lives, to benefit Tunisian and Libyan criminals, we should make it clear that there are limits to the rewards to be gained by making the crossing. There must be a time limit during which we will keep the refugees; at present we’re actually reasonably good at taking people in but rubbish at returning them home, once the immediate risk to their lives is past.
For those from Syria, it is until the war is at an end. For those simply fleeing the turbulence and economic stagnation of African states, trying simply to better themselves, they should be returned home now. Europeans have actually been humane in their reception of migrants but they are entitled to resist the insistence of the UN agencies that they must take in hundreds of thousands more, in response to these conflicts. And they, we, must be far more effective in returning refugees to their countries of origin. Otherwise, far more Syrians will make the same calculation as the unfortunate passengers on the Ezadeen, and may not be so lucky.
And if ever there were an argument for throwing every diplomatic resource we have at the war in Syria – right down to doing business with Iran and Russia – I can’t think of a better one than the pitiful spectacle of those passengers, abandoned at sea.