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To save lives in the Mediterranean, turn the boats around

In almost every field of public policy that isn’t immigration, European and Irish politicians understand how incentives work. Incentives (or more often, disincentives) are the basis for almost every new policy – they jack up the price of petrol and diesel to incentivise you to buy an electric car. They put taxes on plastic bags to get you to use re-useable bags when you do your shopping. They propose hate speech laws to incentivise you to think twice before saying something awkward. Incentives are the name of the game.

Except in the Mediterranean, when it comes to people risking their lives to cross that perilous sea in boats unfit for the journey.

Last week, another 41 died:

Forty-one migrants died in a shipwreck last week in the central Mediterranean, the Ansa news agency reported on Wednesday.

Ansa said four people who survived the shipwreck told rescuers on Lampedusa Island they were on a boat carrying 45 people, including three children.

The boat set off on Thursday morning from Tunisia’s Sfax, a hotspot in the migration crisis, but capsized and sank after a few hours, the survivors said.

It is popular to say that these people, so many of whom drown, are making the crossing to Europe because they are desperate. That is only half the story: They are also making it because they are hopeful. They know, for example, that if their boat does run into trouble half way across the voyage, European Navies will attempt to rescue them, and will then take them all the way to Europe in relative safety. They know that making it to Europe means a far better than even chance that they will be allowed to remain. All the incentives – and the percentages – run in favour of risking your life.

This is not a new problem: The Australians faced it in the late 1990s and early 2000s When the Australians had the problem of hundreds of thousands of migrants arriving annually by boat, the then conservative Government adopted a different policy: It stopped the boats.

First, it processed all new arrivals offshore, in either Papua New Guinea or the smaller island of Nauru. Those who did not qualify for asylum were immediately returned home. Then, in 2013, Australia began to actively turn boats back, directing them back to where they had come from.

Australia has not had one boat attempt a landing – and no migrant deaths at sea – since 2014.

The policy might sound heartless, but it worked. As things stand in Europe, we have a situation where impoverished migrants are paying their lives’ savings to people smugglers and human traffickers to get them across the Mediterranean, often times in boats that are death traps. It is worth the risk because Europe makes it worth the risk.

A policy of turning the boats around wholesale – sending them or escorting them if necessary back to the North African coast would change those incentives. Why risk your life, or pay a smuggler, if you know that you will just end up back where you started?

Europe has the resources to do this, as well: The Mediterranean is packed with naval vessels, including at times Irish naval vessels, which are in effect being subcontracted out to human traffickers. A trafficker need only get the migrants who have paid him out to sea, and if the boat sinks, European navies will take his passengers the rest of the way for free.

Those ships should, instead, be used to patrol the waters around known migrant departure hotspots, and send the boats back.

This does not only make sense for Europe, which is struggling with a migrant crisis. It is also the humanitarian thing to do.

That it is not even on the agenda of European leaders shows, I fear, the extent to which “compassion” has become a substitute for competence, and good policy making, across the continent.

And by the way: Stopping the boats does not mean stopping refugees entirely. My good friend Jason O’Mahony has repeatedly written about the need for EU-funded safe zones, or processing zones, in North Africa itself. Give refugees somewhere outside the continent to submit their asylum applications and have them processed, and no “genuine” refugee need be turned away.

As it is, alas, we’d rather get angry about these deaths than do the one practical thing that might stop them.

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