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Migrant deaths in the Mediterranean: blood on Harper’s hands

By: 
Jesse McLaren

April 27, 2015

“We found, literally, a floating cemetery. Bodies were everywhere. With the dinghies we had to literally slalom among the corpses,” said a medic who tried to rescue migrants from a ship that sank in the Mediterranean last week.
 
Over 22,000 migrants have died since the year 2000 trying to reach Europe, and numbers are rising. Last year more than 3,000 migrants died, including 500 when a boat sank near Malta. This year 1,500 have already died, including more than 1,200 this month alone. But the dominant response has been to blame the victim through a racist war on migrants, rather than address the roots causes of Western foreign and domestic policy—including Canada’s.
 
Militarism and the fascist threat
As Laurens Jolles, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Italy explained, “If one really wants to tackle the problem and ensure that there are less deaths, then the thing to do is to look at providing legal avenues to come to Europe.”
 
But with an economic crisis, the 1% is looking for scapegoats. Last year Italy cancelled its Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue program, and now migrants are being labelled a terrorist threat requiring a military response—including drones. This racist response will only worsen the situation for migrants, while reinforcing the real threat of fascism across Europe.
 
The Italian Parliament is pushing for a naval blockade of Libya, a demand previously only coming from the far-right Northern League. British Prime Minister David Cameron wants to send British forces to Libya to “smash the gangs” responsible for migrant ships—language that reinforces the right-wing UKIP and fascist British National Party. French President François Hollande is mimicking rhetoric of the fascist National Front in equating migrants with terrorists, claiming that “By fighting these traffickers, we fight terrorism and by fighting terrorism we fight these traffickers.”
 
So the response to a humanitarian tragedy becomes part of the Islamophobic “war on terror.” Mohammed Ali Malek—which the Globe and Mail described as a “bearded Tunisian” (as if his choice of facial hair had any relevance)—is being charged with multiple manslaughter, causing a shipwreck and aiding illegal immigration. But criminalizing migration is not a solution, it is part of the problem. As Aurelie Ponthieu from Doctors Without Borders said, “We are amazed to see that the huge means and resources allocated to declaring war on smugglers are not equally invested in saving lives. Focusing on keeping people out by cutting their only existing routes is only going to push people fleeing for their lives to find other routes, potentially even more dangerous.”
 
Harper ‘s complicity
The Harper government’s silence towards the latest tragedy speaks to its complicity—both in waging wars that drive people from their homelands and in preventing them from safely arriving and being welcomed.
 
According to the International Organization for Migration, “In 2014, those dying in the Mediterranean have tended to be from west and central sub-saharan Africa; the Middle East and North Africa, with most originating fin the Syrian Arab Republic, Occupied Palestinian Territory and Egypt; and the Horn of Africa…Many are fleeing countries embroiled in conflict and known for widespread human rights abuses; in 2013, 63 per cent lf all detections of irregular arrivals to Europe by sea were from the Syrian Arab Republic, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Somalia.”
 
Canadian foreign policy is implicated in all these.
 
Somalia has long been the target of Western imperialism—including Canadian soldiers in the 1990s and US drones now.  For more than a decade Canada occupied Afghanistan—which the Liberals started and Harper repeatedly extended. Harper has been a staunch defender of Israel—including cutting humanitarian aid to Gaza and defending every Israeli assault. Harper invited Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak to Canada for the G20 meeting in 2010, supported the dictator until the day he was overthrown in 2011, and has been silent towards the violence of the new dictatorship.  
 
After arming the Libyan dictator Gaddafi, the West launched a war to contain the revolution against him. In order to protect Canadian companies like Suncor and SNC-Lavalin, Harper joined the 2011 war in Libya—where the Canadian military played the role of “Al-Qaeda’s air force.” In 2013 Canada joined the war on Mali on behalf of Canadian mining corporations like Barrick Gold (who have since hired former Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird). Canada sold weapons to Saudi Arabia, which armed sectarian groups to undermine the Syrian revolution, and is now joining the dictator Bashar Al Assad to bomb the resulting extremist groups. Meanwhile Harper’s handpicked ambassador to Jordan has been implicated in transporting ISIS recruit to Syria.
 
All these wars have been labeled “humanitarian interventions.” The fact that thousands are risking their lives to flee the resulting violence shows the true nature of Western intervention. But instead of ending wars, occupations and arms sales the West is criminalizing migrants.
 
Harper’s domestic policy is part of this war on refugees. When a ship of Tamil migrants feeling the genocidal Sri Lankan state arrived in 2010 the Tories criminalized them. Despite the Syrian humanitarian crisis, the Tories have hardly let any Syrian refugees arrive. The Tories have scapegoated refugees to justify gutting refugee health care and distracting from the $36 billion cut to healthcare. The Temporary Foreign Worker Program has been uesd to exploit migrant workers and now arbitrary timelines and lists of "safe countries" have been used to further deport migrants.
 
Instead of criminalizing migrants we need to stop the criminal wars they are fleeing. Instead of closing the borders and deporting migrants we need to open the borders and welcome them. Instead of blaming migrants we need to blame the 1% who thrive on wars and racism. Migrant Lives Matter!
 
Join the emergency rally in support of migrants crossing the Mediterranean, Wednesday April 29 at 1:15pm at the Italian Consulate (136 Beverley St, Toronto), organized by No One Is Illegal-Toronto and Justice for Migrant Workers

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