Socialist Worker

Fortress Europe—leaving refugees to drown at sea

European government ministers’ calls to end patrols in the Mediterranean to rescue migrants stranded at sea is just business as usual, argues Annette Mackin

Issue No. 2428

The Italian coastguard rescuing two of the 156 survivors from a migrant boat that sank off Lampedusa last year

The Italian coastguard rescuing two of the 156 survivors from a migrant boat that sank off Lampedusa last year (Pic: UNHCR Photo Unit/flickr)

The government thinks desperate migrants should be left to die at sea. That’s the conclusion of its announcement that Mediterranean search and recovery missions should end.

Foreign Office minister Lady Anelay last week said rescuing stranded refugees creates “an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing”. 

The latest plans have provoked outrage across many quarters. 

Even the Daily Telegraph newspaper ran a headline asking, “Drown an immigrant to save an immigrant: why is the Government borrowing policy from the BNP?” 

But this is just part of a long term plan to intensify border security in Europe and the racist scapegoating of migrants led by politicians in all countries. 

The Italian government has said its search and rescue operation, the Mare Nostrum, was to end last week. 

During the last year alone 150,000 refugees have been picked up after being stranded at sea. 

The Mare Nostrum operation will now end without a similar search and rescue mission to recover stranded migrants. 

Many have been forced out of countries such as Syria and Libya into packed boats to make the perilous journey to Europe. 

In the last 12 months 2,500 have drowned. 


There is now to be a joint European Union (EU) “border protection” operation codenamed Triton. It will be managed by EU border agency Frontex and will solely patrol within 30 miles of the Italian coast. 

Frontex has long patrolled EU waters—but not to rescue migrants from danger. It describes its own activities as “intelligence driven”. 

Frontex, it says, “complements and provides particular added value to the national border management systems of the Member States”. 

Its main aim has always been to intercept migrants and round them up to be pushed back to their countries of origin—and back to danger. 

Britain has not been part of any previous search and rescue operations and will not be taking part in the Triton operation. 

But it will provide one “debriefer”—an immigration officer whose only responsibility will be to gather 

intelligence about migrants as they disembark. If they manage to disembark. 

Tory home secretary Theresa May was among ministers who agreed with ending the Italian government’s search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean. 

She backed launching Triton without delay in order to “reinforce border surveillance in the waters close to the Italian shores”.

It means that the walls of Fortress Europe will become even more impenetrable.

'We were all very scared'

Intimidation and harassment of migrants who reach the shores of Europe is widespread.

In Greece there have been reports of refugees stripped naked and having their belongings stolen. They have also been held at gunpoint by state-backed border security. 

In January this year a group of 11 Afghans and Syrians, eight of them children, died when a fishing boat carrying 27 people sank near the Greek island of Farmakonisi. 

The boat sank as Greek coastguards were towing it at high speed, dragging it towards Turkey. 

But there have also been cases where border agents have opened fire on migrants. 

In March Greek coastguards fired live rounds at a small boat with 16 Syrians on board trying to reach the Greek island of Oinouses. Three people were injured. 

The coastguard claimed they fired in self defence. 

One refugee said, “I thought they were fake bullets but then I heard somebody shouting…a girl was covered in blood. 

We were all very scared. It was as if I never left the war.”

Human cost of racist controls

It’s been over a year since hundreds of migrants drowned off of the Italian island of Lampedusa, halfway between Sicily and Tunisia (see main picture).

Over 500 people had packed onboard the fishing boat and travelled for 36 hours at sea.

As the boat reached the shore the engine was cut to avoid attention from border patrols, but the bilge pump became inactive and water began to seep in.

The captain tried to set fire to a blanket to attract attention to the unfolding disaster but petrol had spilled on the deck and ignited.

As people moved away from the flames the boat began to capsize.

Many of the passengers could not swim. One survivor from Eritrea recalls, “I’d never been in a body of water before. I was trying to stay afloat by splashing my hands like a dog.”

It was three hours before anyone came to rescue them. The first to arrive were a group of friends returning from a fishing trip on a small private boat.

More than 360 migrants were killed that early morning. No child under the age of 12 survived.

Europe’s politicians condemn the human cost of the perilous journeys being made—but their racist immigration controls are to blame for these terrible deaths.

Thousands die every year

Since 2000 over 22,000 migrants are estimated to have died trying to reach Europe.

Around 500 were killed in September this year when traffickers sunk a boat carrying refugees from Egypt to Malta.

Some had survived Israel’s summer onslaught in Gaza.

Aid to harass migrants

 In 2010 the European Commission offered financial aid to Greece for it to harass migrants entering the country.

Over the next three years it received almost £200 million from a variety of funds.

This was aimed at building “reception centres”, “screening centres”, reforming the asylum law and recruiting additional officers in migration and asylum departments.

Tory's nasty voting record

tory minister Lady Joyce Anelay thinks migrants should be left to drown to discourage others from fleeing war zones.

Her voting record is generally unpleasant. She voted very strongly against equal gay rights and for tuition fees.

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