By Simon Tisdall
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 11/05/2011
The people dying in this war within a war are not Libyans, not the Gaddafi-ites, not the rebels. They are not the endlessly affronted residents of Lampedusa and other Italian and Maltese islands. Nor are they British or other Nato airmen. They are the people who always die first in such situations: the poor, the uneducated, the dark-skinned.
They are people from Eritrea and Somalia, from Chad and Niger, and from other sub-Saharan loser nations. And they are now being washed up daily on Europe's shores, some just alive, others not so lucky – washed up in their hundreds and thousands, unknowing and blameless, the helpless collateral victims of the high-handed US-British-French decision to rid the world of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and damn the consequences.
It may be that this pitiful phenomenon – the flight of more than 12,000 mostly African migrants from Libya since March and the death from drowning or other causes of up to 1,200 of them – was unforeseeable and unpreventable. But, like the rickety, overcrowded boats that sink offshore with a dread predictability, this defence does not really hold water. War creates refugees. This is not a new idea. The wealthy western ones came out months ago, by RAF helicopter and US navy ship. What's left are the ones nobody cares about.
It may be that this exodus is simply something out of control, that the Libyan state, now forcibly bifurcated, has lost the ability to police its borders and its ports. But this is contradicted by shipwreck survivors, speaking to UN officials, who say the Libyan military in Tripoli is overseeing migrant flotillas, stripping their charges of valuables and goods, and packing them off to sea in unseaworthy and un-crewed vessels.
Or it may be, as some suspect, that Gaddafi is deliberately using fresh waves of indigent migrants, added to the tens of thousands who fled Tunisia, to batter at fortress Europe's walls, rattle the Brussels burghers and their effete Euro-Med policy, and pressure the EU and Nato to think more deeply about the ramifications of regime change. Libya's deputy foreign minister, Khaled Kaim, swears there is no intent to use migration as a weapon. "I assure you, this is not the policy of the government," he said.
But given the near panic across Europe over rising Arab spring immigration, it's tempting to ask Kaim: "If not, why not?" Gaddafi cannot stop Nato militarily. Diplomacy has so so far got him nowhere. But you don't need a True Finns to tell you how potent is the immigration card when slapped on the table ahead of national elections.
As migrant numbers grow uncontrollably, so too may doubts about the wisdom of endlessly destabilising Libya. More piquantly, Arab spring fallout is already destabilising Europe. The Schengen "open borders" treaty is one of the EU's proudest achievements. But where is it now? Heading for indefinite suspension if France and others have their way. Meanwhile, British government ministers Theresa May and Nick Clegg say the UK will not accept refugees from Libya. Shame on them.
Its easily forgotten migrants are not the problem. They are the victims. As António Guterres, the UNHCR chief, said this week, it is Europe's duty, and in its self-interest, to do more to help them, however badly regimes such as Libya's behave. EU states should go beyond their legal obligations to "ensure that people seeking refuge are received with dignity and humanity, in full respect of their rights", he said.
In other words, do the decent, democratic thing. It's the better way to beat Gaddafi. It's what the Arab spring is all about.