There is a streak of hypocrisy running through much of the condemnation of the British government for driving migrants trying to cross the English Channel back where they came from.
How in terms of political morality does this differ from the migration policies of EU governments, including the Irish government?
Many will recall the picture from September 2015 of the body of a child lying like a sodden clump on a beach in Turkey. He and his father had been trying to reach Europe from Iraqi Kurdistan. The image prompted pleas across Europe for an end to this cruelty. The Irish Navy sent a ship to join in an international rescue operation.
Many in Ireland felt a surge of pride at footage of the crew of the LÉ Niamh hauling desperate people out from the churning Mediterranean onto the safety of the deck of an Irish ship and wrapping them in foil for warmth.
Less than two years later, however, in July 2017, Dr. Conor Kenny, from Sligo, just back from a three-month stint in the Mediterranean with Médecins Sans Frontières, described to an Oireachtas committee how Libyan coastguards had opened fire on a boat crammed with refugees even as the MSF ship he was serving on was moving in to try to help them.
In an interview later with the Sligo Champion, Dr. Kenny said: “A big part of the Irish Navy’s mandate is about supporting the Libyan coastguard who enact such behaviour… How can you support that? How can you be a part of that?”
The Irish mission, Dr. Kenny went on, was no longer a search-and-rescue operation but one element in a strategy designed to drive migrants as far as possible away from Europe.
The EU had equipped the Libyan coastguard with new craft and state-of-the-art tracking equipment to help hunt migrants down. It was far from clear to whom the coastguard was answerable – apart from its EU arms suppliers and funders.
Irish ships were part of a force focussed on deterring migrants. Standing idly by as coastguards shot up boat-loads of migrants was the natural, inevitable outcome. It was this which had angered Dr. Kenny.
October last year saw the Irish State take another major step away from the stated ideals of its intervention – “full participation” in a new EU naval force, EUNAVFOR. Defence minister Paul Keogh declared: “Irish forces are now fully integrated into the command structure and have direct access to mission intelligence…
“The main focus of the mission is security and interception operations, in order to disrupt the operations of criminal organisations engaged in human smuggling and trafficking operations…
“The LÉ Samuel Beckett will also be available to respond to requests from the relevant authorities to assist with humanitarian search and rescue when required.”
Thus, humanitarian assistance would take second place to “security and interception operations” and would, anyway, only be provided at the request of “the relevant authorities” – that is to say, EUNAVOR.
In January 2018, CNN had broadcast a series of undercover reports from Libya by journalist Nima Elbagir. These showed a marketplace where chained migrants were being sold for one or two or three years to the highest bidders. “Does anybody need a digger? This is a digger, a big strong man. What am I bid, what am I bid?”
Over the previous decade, huge throngs of desperate people had poured into Libya from sub-Saharan Africa, fleeing the ravages of neoliberalism, climate change and dictatorship, trekking north, headed for the coast. The bleached bones of those who didn’t make it are strewn across the Sahara.
Some of these who did make it and were able to clamber onto dinghies drowned when their flimsy crafts crumpled.
Others remained trapped between the sea and marauding slavers. All this was well-known to the authorities in every EU capital, including Dublin.
In February this year, EU Foreign Ministers, including Simon Coveney, dived even deeper into disrepute to launch a new mission, ostensibly to enforce a UN arms embargo on Libya – with explicit orders not to rescue migrants but to sail away from any area where the presence of an EU force might have “an impact on migration flows.”
The message was – let them flounder!
None of this has been the subject of debate among “progressive” Irish politicians and commentators who prefer to avert their eyes from the reality they have connived at in the Mediterranean, while pleasuring themselves with smug disgust at the behaviour in the English Channel of Boris Johnson’s foetid cabal of racist crooks.
Alan Kurdi. That was the name of the little boy on the Turkish beach.