That’s as bad as it gets.
Back in the late 1840s, they had coffin ships. Desperate people crammed-on, packed-off, consumed with dysentery and typhus. One third of these desperate people died en route, with so many bodies thrown overboard that sharks followed the ships the way seagulls follow trawlers. In 1847 alone, one fifth of the 100,000 Irish people who left for Canada and North America died before they ever got there. We know all this from our history books.
But that was almost two centuries ago. It could hardly happen ever again, anywhere near Europe, could it? Oh, wait. Are those body bags on the Mediterranean beaches where we go on our holidays? Dead people — children, women, men — washing up on our favourite holiday hotspots?
A blonde, blue-eyed Sun ‘newspaper’ ‘columnist’ suggested the other day that the shiploads of desperate people drowning in the Mediterranean on their way from conflict-torn and impoverished African countries were “cockroaches” who needed “gunships” turned on them. Mainstream EU politicians with less overtly Nazi rhetoric are considering military action against the people-traffickers who profiteer from all the death. Really? Military action? And how will more violence help anybody? Obviously, structural economics and humanitarian aid are two very different things. But as healthy, wealthy, secure, privileged Europeans — yes, even the poorest of us — we all have a duty of care to people fleeing conflict, persecution, the crazed psychopathy that is Isis, and poverty so desperate that they are willing to pay several lifetimes of salary to unscrupulous criminals to get them out of where they are, and towards a precarious life somewhere far below the bottom social rung of Europe. And what do we do in response? We take away the rescue boats, so that the Med is littered with their corpses.
While clearly chunks of Africa cannot move house en masse to Europe, what is happening now in the sea is a betrayal of our so-called civilised Christian values. Up in Northern Europe, neo-Nazi tabloid columnists aside, we have all gone temporarily blind, deaf and dumb to the situation. It’s the equivalent of panicked people jumping off a gigantic, burning building only for the safety net to be pulled away at the moment of impact. We wring our hands, and leave Sicily and Malta to sort it all out. To haul the bodies from the water. While a long-term solution is for governments, aid agencies and the UN to figure out, short-term, we — all of us — can’t allow the mass drownings to happen. We are all human beings. Where we were born was just an accident.