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The Observer view on Greek migrant boat tragedy: West must admit responsibility | Observer Editorial

The nationalities of hundreds of people believed to have drowned in the latest horrific migrant boat tragedy in the Mediterranean help explain why they attempted such a dangerous journey. Pakistanis, Egyptians, Syrians, Afghans and Palestinians reportedly made up the majority of the roughly 750 passengers on board the ship, which sank 50 miles off the coast of Greece last Wednesday from Tobruk, Libya.

The country-of-origin list is a painful indicator for which the EU, UK and their allies bear much of the responsibility. The West’s failure to prevent the Syrian regime’s war on its people led to the migration crisis of 2015-16, when hundreds of thousands of Syrians sought safety in Europe. Although the fighting has subsided, many, including Palestinians living in desperate conditions in refugee camps in the war-torn country, are still fleeing persecution from a retaliatory regime or are fleeing an increasingly intolerant Turkey.

It was no surprise that the Afghans came aboard. The UK and European NATO members have decided to join the US in abandoning Afghanistan in 2021, triggering a predictable crisis. The United Nations says 28.3 million people, or two-thirds of the population, will need emergency humanitarian assistance this year. Authoritarian Taliban rule made matters worse. No wonder people are taking desperate measures.

This argument can be extended further to include people from the Horn of Africa, the Sahel, and other neglected post-colonial countries in South Asia, whose sense of hopelessness, poverty, and chronic insecurity fuel migration.

Last week’s tragedy sparked a barrage of recriminations. The Greek coastguard has been criticized for not doing more or not moving quickly enough to help the stricken trawler. The official story of what happened at sea seems to change from day to day. The Greek government is under fire again, given its recent hardline anti-immigration stance and previous egregious cases of ship “pushing back”. Several suspected people smugglers have been arrested. Any investigation must be thorough and impartial. Yet the roots of the never-ending immigration crisis are no mystery.

European countries, including the UK, have failed to develop a humane, coherent and effective approach to the challenges posed by irregular migration. Germany’s Angela Merkel struck a one-off deal with Turkey to stem the flow of refugees following the 2015-16 influx. The subsequent agreement with Libya did not stop abuses in the camps or in the new voyage. Brussels is now discussing payments to Tunisia. For its part, Britain violated international law by arbitrarily striking a deal with Rwanda.

Overall, however, efforts to stop these dangerous voyages in the Mediterranean and in the straits are failing, with crossings and deaths rising this year. There are too few safe, legal routes. And there is a lack of international coordination. It is doubtful that the new EU-wide agreement on migration and asylum will have any impact. Anti-immigration governments in Poland and Hungary remain reluctant to help “front-line” countries such as Italy and Greece. Meanwhile, immigration is once again a hot political issue as far-right parties sweep across Europe.

Short-term fixes and a Rwandan-style respite won’t prevent more tragedies. There is an urgent need to identify the root causes and address the migration challenge at its source. This must mean expanding systematic cooperation with countries of origin and transit, where politically possible. That means more, not less, development aid and assistance. It means acknowledging that food insecurity, inequality, conflict and the climate crisis — the main drivers of irregular migration — are problems the West has helped create.

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