Massacre in the Mediterranean

WHEN a passenger ship goes under it naturally provokes an outcry amongst the seafaring community and the public at large. When the Titanic sank in 1912 with great loss of life, the subsequent inquiry, along with those of a similar United States Senate investigation, led to important changes in safety practices at sea. More recent inquiries have led to measures to ensure that crews follow safe working practices and that all equipment on board is properly installed and maintained and that everything is done to guarantee the health and safety of all the passengers on board.

But it’s a different matter when a ship packed with migrants trying to enter Europe via Libya sinks.

Last weekend a cargo ship went to the aid of a merchant vessel with engine problems in international waters south of Sicily. Many of the approximately 900 people crammed on board ran to the side of the vessel to be rescued and it turned over. Over 800 migrants are believed to have drowned when the packed boat capsized. Others were trapped inside behind locked doors when the ship sank and only a handful have survived.

French President Francois Hollande rightly said that this could be “the worst disaster in recent years in the Mediterranean” and Maltese premier Joseph Muscat has slammed the human traffickers who risk people’s lives by putting them on rickety ships in unpredictable waters. But other reactionary politicians and their lackeys in the gutter press are simply using the issue to whip up more anti-immigrant hysteria to justify austerity and creeping fascism in Europe.

In Britain a prominent Ukip member retweeted an image of some of the rescued migrants with a caption that said: “Labour’s new floating voters. Coming to a country near you soon,” and the Sun’s Katie Hopkins said: “Bring on the gunships, force migrants back to their shores and burn the boats.”

Though Hopkin’s rant has led to a petition calling for her dismissal, which has attracted about 250,000 signatures, the sad fact is that this is precisely how the leaders of the European Union intend to tackle the problem.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi says the focus needs to be on eradicating human trafficking and that the responsibility lies with the whole world, “not just Italy and Malta”. He says his government is now considering “targeted interventions” against the Libya-based people smugglers behind the crossings. What he doesn’t say is that the problem is largely of imperialism’s own making.

Many of the migrants who board ships to cross the Mediterranean are from sub-Saharan Africa and in the past most of them would have found work in Libya. Muammar Gaddafi spent billions on development in Libya providing work for hundreds of thousands of African migrants.

Gaddafi also used Libya’s oil wealth to help development across the entire African continent — genuine assistance that provided work and a better life for many whose only hope now is to seek a costly and dangerous passage to join the ranks of the army of illegal immigrants who prop up the underground economy of the European Union.

Britain, France and Italy led the pack of Nato vultures that descended on Libya to incite and arm a rebellion by reactionary Islamic fundamentalists that brought down the Gaddafi government and plunged the country into chaos and destitution.

The imperialists rejoiced when Gaddafi was killed by these thugs in October 2011. They claimed that Libya would be “free” and “democratic” under the rule of hand-picked stooges and the big oil corporations eager to get their greedy hands back in control of Libya’s black gold.

Now Libya is in ruins as rival sectarian militias fight each other across the country. Oil pipelines and pumping stations are under constant attack and production is significantly down from the levels Libya produced before the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.

“Gangs of criminals are putting people on a boat, sometimes even at gunpoint,” the Maltese leader declared. “They’re putting them on the road to death, really, and nothing’s genocide — nothing less than genocide, really,” Muscat declared.

But the human traffickers are only a symptom not the problem and imperialism is to blame.