Migrants in peril on the sea: illegal immigration, past and present

On 15 April, reports that a migrant ship carrying an estimated 550 refugees had capsized off the coast of Libya, resulting in the deaths of 400 people, dominated news headlines. Three days later, another vessel foundered south of the Italian island of Lampedusa, with a staggering death toll of 800 people, including children. With only 28 survivors rescued, officials predict that the event will go down as the deadliest migration disaster in the Mediterranean to date. Then, on 19 April, shocked beach-goers and emergency services workers scrambled on rocks to bring ashore destitute refugees adrift on the remnants of their fishing boat, which had run aground off the Greek island of Rhodes.

Political conflicts in countries such as Syria, Libya and Eritrea have seen thousands of desperate refugees attempting to flee their war-torn homelands by embarking on voyages to western Europe. Crammed into unseaworthy vessels, individuals pay thousands to unscrupulous ‘migrant-smugglers’ for the perilous and often fatal passage across the Mediterranean.

In June 2014, the UN Refugee Agency announced that the number of globally displaced people had exceeded 50 million for the first time since the end of the Second World War. Despite the EU’s calls this week for the swift implementation of a ten-point plan to control Europe’s migrant crisis, the hitherto apathetic and politically driven response by EU leaders to aid rescue missions must now be scrutinised.

Britain’s seemingly ambivalent position towards the plight of refugees is of particular historical significance. Seventy years ago, illegal immigration passages through Europe were dominated by visa-less Jewish refugees – often Holocaust survivors – escaping the horrors of Nazism by attempting to enter the British mandate of Palestine. In an effort to assuage a deterioration in Anglo–Arab relations, Whitehall opposed an influx of Jewish migrants to its Mandate, issuing strict immigration quotas to control numbers.

In 1942, the passenger ship SS Struma, laden with Romanian refugees, was refused entry visas by Whitehall to Palestine after its engine had failed off the coast of Turkey. Following a stalemate in diplomatic negotiations, Istanbul responded by towing the vessel into the Black Sea, where it was subsequently torpedoed by a Russian submarine, killing all but one of the 750 passengers aboard. Despite the tragedy of such events, the post-war period saw numerous vessels continue attempts to evade the British blockade; actions motivated by a similar desperation to that which drives migrants to make the journey today.

In August 1946, Whitehall reacted by establishing internment camps in colonial Cyprus to detain refugees. Twelve separate campsites erected in the villages of Caraolos and Xylotymbou, controversially constructed by German prisoners of war, collectively imprisoned more than 52,000 people and witnessed the births of more than 2,000 children until their closure in February 1949. As the EU grapples to find a solution to the most recent wave of migrants, new mass camps on the southern tips of Europe seem increasingly likely.

Despite British efforts to deter future passages, the Cyprus camps did little to prevent desperate migrants from reaching their Jewish homeland. Seventy years on, the decision to end Italy’s Mare Nostrum search and rescue campaign in October 2014 and its largely scaled-back replacement, Triton, administered by the EU border agency, has again failed to discourage refugees from embarking on illegal passages.

Allowing the management of refugees to be governed by political instead of humanitarian interests will not prevent millions of people turning to stable states for sanctuary. Now, as then, draconian measures and tough talking will only lead to more bodies in the Mediterranean.

Eliana Hadjisavvas
PhD candidate in Modern History,
University of Birmingham