Pope Francis weighed into politics last week when he castigated the European Union for being a «haggard bureaucracy» and «indifferent» to the needs of its citizens and workers. Another key point of his address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg was that the EU bloc was failing in its humanitarian «response» to the immigration crisis engulfing the continent. But the pope would have been more to the point if he had condemned the EU for creating this crisis in the first place.
Some parliamentarians were disgruntled that a religious leader was permitted to address what is supposed to be a secular institution, and that the Catholic pontiff was interfering in political matters. The truth is, however, that the pope was not being political enough.
On the face of it, the 77-year-old head of the Catholic Church may have sounded as if he was upbraiding the EU, especially on the issue of immigration. But his speech was a cop-out of the political cause of the immigration crisis – namely EU policies. Instead, he confined his concern, somewhat piously, to symptoms of the problem, rather than the root cause.
The Argentinian-born Pontiff, who assumed the papacy in March 2013, told European parliamentarians in emotive language: «There needs to be a united response to the question of migration. We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast cemetery.»
He added: «The boats landing daily on the shores of Europe are filled with men and women who need acceptance and assistance».
Fair enough, Pope Francis had a point about the reprehensible indifference of the EU towards accommodating immigrants.
UN figures show that there is indeed a humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean. In the same week that the pope was speaking in Strasbourg, some 600 immigrants had to be rescued while on a freighter ship that ran adrift between North Africa and Sicily.
This year, the UN High Commission for Refugees reckons that over 160,000 people have so far tried to sail across the Mediterranean to European shores. Last year, the total figure was 60,000, which itself was a big increase on previous years. This huge increase in the number of migrants trying to reach Europe over the past year has resulted in a surge of deaths at sea, from boats capsizing or running adrift.
The International Organisation for Migration estimates that more than 3,200 migrants have died so far this year while attempting to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa. Many more hundreds are simply missing and unaccounted for.
Most of the victims are heading to the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, which is only 113 kilometres from Tunisia. The Italian island has become known as «the gateway to Europe» among migrants. Packed into crowded, dilapidated vessels by unscrupulous human traffickers, the refugees are prey to the vagaries of the sea. Many of the boats run short of fuel or have no-one to properly navigate them.
Last year, in one of the biggest tragedies, 366 people died when their vessel foundered off Lampedusa in October 2013. That prompted the Italian authorities then to mount an ongoing sea-rescue operation known as Mare Nostrum (Our Sea). It is believed that the operation has saved as many as 100,000 people who had become distressed at sea. But at a cost of €100 million a year, the Italian government closed down the naval rescue mission last month. It is now feared that the death toll in the Mediterranean will rise dramatically as a result.
A major reason why Italy had to call off the salvage operation was that the EU baulked at providing funds to assist. With the Italian economy roiling from its own fiscal woes, Mare Nostrum was axed. One of the most recalcitrant EU governments was Britain. London argued that the rescue effort was «acting as a pull factor» for migrants who felt that their chances of safely crossing the Mediterranean were improved because of the Italian navy’s presence.
Humanitarian critics deplored the British logic as «callous». And not just the British attitude, but the whole EU central bureaucracy’s.
Karl Kopp, a consultant for the German refugee organisation ProAsyl, told Deutsche Welle last month that the European Commission was simply not doing enough. «After Lampedusa a lot of people said the dying must end, it must never happen again. Now we know that the flow of refugees has increased in the face of crises around the world and more people are dying. We are appealing to the other players in Europe – to the EU Commission, to government leaders – to create some legal routes to Europe,» said Kopp.
Note that this campaigner touches on the fulcrum of the problem – «refugees increasing in the face of crises around the world» – but did not explicitly delve into the heart of the matter. Namely, what crises, where exactly are the crises, and who is fuelling them? It turns out that it is the EU – the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 – that is the guilty party. In other words, the EU has largely created this immigration disaster, and it is the EU that is now scandalously turning its back on the human catastrophe of its own making.
This central point was completely misunderstood or ignored by Pope Francis in his remonstration with the Strasbourg Parliament last week.
The main national groups that are piling onto leaky boats and desperately seeking refuge in Europe are from Syria and Libya, according to monitors. Other nationalities include Eritrea and Somalia. But it is refugees from Syria, Libya and other North African countries that have led to the surge in migrants risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean. It is believed that other African refugees include those from Mali and the Central African Republic, who make their way north via human trafficking networks to the Libyan or Tunisian ports eventually for Europe.
This flow of refugees is correlated with the spate of armed conflicts that have erupted in these countries over the past three years.
Britain and France are the two main European governments that have been most responsible for fuelling the conflict in Libya when they led the NATO bombing of that country during 2013 and the eventual toppling of the Gaddafi government. Other European members of NATO also bear responsibility for unleashing the humanitarian and political chaos prevailing in Libya.
Likewise in Syria, it is Britain and France that have spearheaded the European destabilisation of that country with their covert support for the international mercenary groups trying to overthrow the Assad government. Along with the United States, the Europeans have destroyed Syrian society from their covert regime-change operation that has led to eight million people – a third of the population – being displaced. Most of the Syrian refugees are currently subsisting in miserable camps in neighbouring Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon. But many are also making their circuitous way to Europe.
France has gone it alone with military interventions in its former colonial possessions of Mali and the Central African Republic during the last year and in the Ivory Coast two years before that. France may claim a legal mandate under the dubious rubric of «combating terrorism» but many legal experts argue that the rash of French neo-imperialist interventions across Africa are unlawful. No-one has an exact figure, but it is estimated that French-led destabilisation of these three African countries alone has resulted in over a million refugees, many of whom try to migrate to Europe to escape the violence and deprivation.
This is the crux of the matter. The European Union is being assailed by a crisis of illegal immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East. Thousands of these desperate people are being exploited by heartless modern-day slave traders and thousands are dying in watery graves – while the EU bureaucracy and member governments like Britain and France erect fortress-like barriers.
Pope Francis is correct to rebuke European callousness towards immigrants. But the solution is not for Europe to merely be more accepting and assisting of immigrants. The solution is for the EU and its principal members in London and Paris to stop fuelling conflict in the Middle East and Africa and hence to stop the flow of millions of refugees.
The British government might lecture about «pull factors» over the now-cancelled Italian sea-rescue operation. But what about British and French «push factors» creating a flood of refugees from their criminal military machinations in the Middle East and Africa?
Now if the pope had excoriated the real EU cause-and-effect of the immigration crisis during his address at Strasbourg then he really would have weighed into politics with a virtue.
And while he was at it, the pope could have added that one million refugees have also been instigated in Eastern Ukraine over the past year – by the EU-backed terror operations of the Kiev regime.