Mediterranean migrants are not slaves – do not pervert history to justify military action

EU leaders have accepted that using force will kill adults and children boarding boats in Libya. This is no high-minded crusade

EU leaders this week announced that their response to the staggering loss of life among migrants crossing the Mediterranean in unseaworthy vessels would be military action. They aim to employ deadly force to smash the so-called “networks” that operate out of Libya to orchestrate the perilous sea crossings.

There will be “collateral damage”, they acknowledge: adults and children boarding or on the vessels under attack will be killed. But this does not deter them.

Why not? Where is the moral justification for some of the world’s richest nations employing their military might in a manner that will kill men, women and children from some of theworld’s poorest and most war-torn regions? A dangerous perversion of history is being peddled to answer this question.

In recent years,policy on unauthorised movement across borders has drawn a distinction between the activities of “people smugglers” and those of “human traffickers”. Smuggling, it is said, involves voluntary, consensual arrangements; but trafficking entails coercion or deception, and has been repeatedly likened to the transatlantic slave trade by politicians, journalists, and even some contemporary anti-slavery campaigners. The dangers of the analogy are now made manifest, with the terms “smuggling” and “trafficking” being employed interchangeably in relation to migrants crossing the Mediterranean.

This elision allows EU leaders to justify their decision to employ military force on the north African coast as a “tough choice” forced upon them by the sudden appearance of a far greater evil – a modern slave trade.

The EU leaders present themselves as modern-day William Wilberforces, embarking on a high-minded crusade. But this is patently false and entirely self-serving. What is happening in the Mediterranean today does not even remotely resemble the transatlantic slave trade. Enslaved Africans did not want to move.

Today, those embarking on the journey to Europe want to leave their home countries. And if they were free to do so, they would be taking advantage of the safe flights that budget airlines operate between north Africa and Europe at a tiny fraction of the cost of the extraordinarily dangerous sea passage.

It’s true that would-be migrants are sometimes held in terrifying conditions in Libya. And the outcome for those who make it on to boats is uncertain. Some die en route, some survive only to be exploited and abused at the point of destination. But others who survive secure at least a chance of accessing rights, protection, family reunion, education, work, freedom from persecution and so on.

This is not a modern-day slave trade. To attempt to crush it with military force is not to take a noble stand against the evil of slavery, or even against “trafficking”. There is no moral basis for the use of lethal force against peaceable women, men and children, including victims of torture, and those fleeing persecution and war. Europeans and their leaders must remember their own history, recent and not so recent, and the responsibilities Europe bears for the people on the boats. Rather than sending in the military, Europe should resettle many more refugees, and dismantle the barriers to movement that have been put in the way of all but the most wealthy.