Welcome back to my blog. As our world becomes ‘smaller’ and more interconnected there is significant overlap between human geography and economics. This issue is brought home with the very topical issue of the flow of migrants through the mediterranean to Europe, as well as the emergence of piracy off the horn of Africa. I recently studied the issues of piracy and migration in geography and found that there were a number of significant links to economics such as Tragedy of the Commons, disruption to trade in particular around chokepoints, economic growth, rising debt levels, increased burden of governments and many more. It is quite a lengthy piece of research but is certainly worth a read if you are interested in these issues which have global ramifications.
The oceans have arguably been the biggest victims of humanity’s hubris. In today’s world they are characterised by a number of hazardous obstacles including treacherous journeys taken by migrants in an attempt to flee persecution and economic hardship leading to a mass influx of refugees, particularly in Mediterranean countries such as Italy and Greece; as well as piracy by ‘ex-fishermen’ caused by the crippling poverty occurring in war torn, failed states such as Somalia. Interpretations of these two ‘obstacles’ can vary, thus for the purposes of this essay, piracy will be defined as ‘an act of robbery or criminal violence by ship or boat-bourn attackers upon another ship or coastal area, with the aim of stealing cargo and other valuable items or capturing innocent members of the crew/civilians in exchange for a ransom’. Migration on the other hand will be defined as ‘the flow of people and ethnic groups (diasporas) from their home country to another country usually to seek refuge and apply for asylum status or for socio-economic reasons. In both cases, the problems are ubiquitous and the impacts are wide-ranging thus intervention is not a straightforward process. Furthermore, we should also consider what we mean by ‘management’. If we are referring to implementing policies, which restrict flows of people to dampen the socio-economic factors on host countries, or polices that primarily focus on stopping piracy through armed vessels and military action to reduce the economic toll of disruption to shipping then this only scratches the surface of the issue. The grass roots of the issues lie much deeper than this. Many people often oversee the fact that migration and piracy are the product of poor governance, instability, corruption, persecution, injustice and a lack of human rights, as they tend to look out for their own self-interests. Therefore even though we have seen a decrease in piracy along coastlines previously at risk or around chokepoints across the globe and more control/support for the migrants crossing the oceans in recent years, this does not necessarily imply effective management, and is quite myopic. Consequently, this essay will explore some of these policies but will more importantly focus on management strategies such as those being adopted by the European Commission and the United Nations (UN) to promote ‘voluntary solidarity’ which tackles the underlying root causes. That said, even though the latter policies are more desirable and could be termed as promoting ‘effective management’, in reality, they are much harder to achieve as they often require unanimous global cooperation which is difficult when there are so many different players, laws, governments, ideas and cultures; partly the reason why short term strategies have dominated-to bridge the gap until a long term solution, if any, can be found. We should also address long-term policies suggested by supranational institutional bodies with a degree of caution, as the world we live in is so dynamic and many targets/future goals could be termed over ambitious and nothing more than a utopian pipeline dream.
To understand the success of these management strategies, let us first consider the nature of the problem; assess some of the driving forces that underpin piracy and migration and recognize why we need to control them in the first place. With regards to piracy, poverty, dysfunctional governments, links to crime networks and loss of traditional fishing (Tragedy of the Commons) are the main reasons why young, economically active men tend to enter the piracy business. Overfishing is perhaps the most significant factor, caused by a lack of property rights and laws over international waters as it has enabled large scale fishing trawlers to scour the ocean beds leaving declining fish populations for the people living in coastal towns. One point to note here is that although large fishing organisations may benefit from this, we should consider “at whose expense?” and the damage that they are creating not just for people but for the environment. It is ironic in the sense that they have created the problem and are now having to invest in strategies to control the problem. Furthermore, maritime piracy costs shipping companies in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, some $13–$15 billion annually in losses. Premiums for a single transit through the Gulf of Aden, for example, have risen from $500 to as much as $20,000. If strict fishing laws were in place, piracy would be less of a problem, thus allowing firms to invest their money in innovation or wildlife conservation instead. Beyond the immediate threat to crews, property, and ships, maritime piracy endangers sea lines of communication, interferes with freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce, and undermines regional stability. Piracy also is corrosive to political and social development in Africa, interrupting capital formation and economic development, abetting corruption, and empowering private armies. Left unchecked, the cumulative effect of piracy eventually can lead to the decline of vibrant commercial centres. In terms of migration, it is often a result of push factors such as violation of rights and deception by illegal smugglers who present the image of prosperity, education and safety in exchange for a payment around (US$750-3500). However the boats supplied are substandard, with over 400 people on one, intended for a crew of around 50. Pull factors include, successful migrants encouraging their families to move; however, this exacerbates the issue and since life vests are not issued and most people do not know how to swim it means the death toll is extremely high and the short term aid currently provided is vital to survival. If people are lucky enough to stay on board they are likely to get trampled, dehydrated, cuts from nails/wood on the vessel or physically abused by other desperate migrants. They are also misinformed and don’t understand that they will not immediately be accepted/given education. Moreover, like with piracy the effects are damaging particularly on women and children who are at risk of exploitation or death. One shall never forget the picture of the three-year-old Syrian boy, Alan Kurdi, whose body was washed ashore on a Turkish beach.
By considering short-term management for migration first, NGO’s such as Medecins Sans Frontieres and SOS Mediterranee have arguably been the most important as they have played an active, pivotal role on the front lines. Missions ensure that vulnerable individuals who are desperate for a better life are not left to drown, thus directly preventing loss of life. Although this makes the crossing safer for migrants and ensures a reduction in death tolls, the scale of the problem is enormous and often rescuers have to make decisions on whom to save first as there are simply not enough resources. It also creates the issue of a ‘moral hazard’ as if people know they will be rescued when things get rough, they may be more inclined to take the risk, thus the ‘obstacle’ will continue. That said, NGO’s are working in countries such as Syria, Libya and countries in central and east Africa including Somalia, Eritrea, Burkina Faso and Mali to help alleviate famine and disease, although this too is short term and is expensive to sustain. What’s more is that with such management strategies, there is still a risk of migrants being attacked by pirates or being arrested by Libyan authorities. Migrants can also drift for days facing temperatures upwards of 32 degrees, with little water before help can arrive.
Another management strategy in the medium term that could be implemented is to address the issue of the traffickers. Traffickers provide the ‘oxygen of hope’ and say it “will be like a dream, almost as easy as flying”. Traffickers promise a way out when in reality they know that the boats will not survive in the open water of the Mediterranean. They are largely corrupt; involve violence, threats, and abuse and demand payments depending on where you come from. These militia groups could be termed the driving force behind the movement across the oceans as they facilitate the transfer. However, stemming this is controversial as you are then denying people any way of escaping their countries where atrocities are rife, arguably preventing people’s right to move. Also if international organisations were to impose minimum standards on vessels used this would be controversial, as you would be supporting a form of ‘human trafficking’ and could start political wars with local governments who do not want their citizens to leave and do not like the idea of foreign intervention in their domestic practices. Also laws/policies are rarely enforced in such countries and due to the crippling poverty, individuals have little regard for helping others or making the society safer and fairer for everyone but instead looking out for their own self interests, and above all trying to survive each day.
Nearly two-thirds of all international migrants live in Europe (76 million). Consequently, the role of the European Commission has been important, particularly influencing the long-term management of the crisis. Despite the fact that certain countries such as Greece, Italy and Turkey are most affected, its agenda on migration sets out a collaborative response to take the burden of particular countries. Within this they focus on: Reducing incentives for irregular migration by disrupting smuggler networks; saving lives and securing external borders by ensuring strong shared management of the external borders through full operationalization of the European border and Coast Guard; a strong common asylum policy to ensure a fully efficient, fair and human policy with a common and harmonised set of rules, including a more sustainable system for allocating asylum applications among member states; and a new policy on legal migration, which keeps Europe an attractive destination for migrants in a time of demographic decline via actions such as renewing the Blue Card scheme or by easing remittances. They also have four priority actions: operational measures which has seen presence at sea triple and management support teams becoming operational in Italy and Greece; budgetary support-total funding to address the refugee crisis in 2015 and 2016 was €9.2bn; and implementation of EU law, which has resulted in 40 new infringement decisions against 19 member states. Another aspect is the external dimension and this has focused on tackling the root cause of refugees via diplomatic offensive and an EU Action Plan against migrant smuggling is being implemented. Currently the EU is the world’s leading donor of aid. It has saved over 400,000 lives since 2015 and is working to change migration from a challenge to an opportunity by promoting the idea of ‘voluntary solidarity’. As outlined above, the work of the EU considers a range of time scales and puts together a cohesive and comprehensive plan to manage the problem. However, this is by no means a “one size fits all” strategy. The nature of migration is so complex such that it is difficult to address all flow and movements of people. Furthermore, budgets are still restricted and there are not unlimited amounts of supplies/asylum applications. Many refugees face years of uncertainty while their asylum is processed. As long as the inequalities persist and as long as the North-South and South-South cooperation do not improve, our societies will, unfortunately, continue to face more extraordinary challenges, thus putting in doubt the immense achievements of our civilization. Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/Da’esh) will continue to thrive unless the deep political roots of the Syrian conflict are resolved through a credible and comprehensive political process.
The management of migration also varies across the world and there are a number of contrasts within the EU between the 28 nations e.g. Italy & Greece vs. Sweden & Finland, where the former have been less receptive and welcoming whereas the latter view the influx of refugees as a boost to their economy. This contrasting opinion has led to such countries offering different levels of support-Italy’s sluggish legal system drags out the time spent in limbo. Australia deals with the influx of migrants from the South China Sea in a very different way that Europe accommodates them. In Australia, around 25,000 asylum seekers have arrived in by boat over the last 18 months. The country is represented by one political body and is seen as having a hard immigration policy, by forcing refugees to stay on Islands off the coast of Australia, which it has sovereignty over until their applications are processed. Conditions/provision of basic needs have been reported to be substandard. This is ironic considering Australia’s foundations were built upon immigrants/diverse origins and ethnic groups. What’s more is that today it is relatively under populated and could benefit from an influx of migrants. Australia’s more hard-line approach to immigration is spreading across to European countries such as Austria, France and perhaps even the UK, thus the ship to prosperity may already be headed in the wrong direction. Germany however, has set the bar high although this has created some political tension within the country with far right groups. The migration & “human rights at sea” debate is rather recent idea and countries accept varying degrees of responsibility due to differences in cultures, ideas and policies/levels of enforcement.
Another equally important hazardous obstacle in our oceans is piracy. For many poor people, the pay-offs from illicit activities are so high, and the licit alternatives so unrewarding, that interdiction and prison will not deter them from trying their luck again. The success of the Somali counter-piracy strategy has driven significant security sector reform throughout the Horn of Africa that has enabled over 1000 pirates to be prosecuted. Determining which state should prosecute pirates seized at sea is still particularly vexing. It is important that the use of force is appropriately used and naval forces should try to plan operations accurately in advance, to minimize loss of life.
The modus operandi of pirates changes in the course of the years as they passed from hijacking of ships and armed robbery to kidnapping, a lucrative activity as they receive ransoms before releasing their hostages. What is clear though is that they are nothing more than fishermen with basic skills, using lightweight skiffs to carry out their attacks, as exemplified via the movie “Captain Phillips”. Hence, stopping acts of piracy in recent times has been successful by implementing private sector defence methods such as laser devices, water cannons, electric fences, stun grenades, nets, compressed air guns and foul smelling liquid. As hijacks for ransom were a big problem for shipping companies such as Maersk as well as insurance companies, in particular of the coast of East Africa around Somali waters, ships were permitted to carry armed guards (largely ex-marines). Although in most of the world’s seas this is illegal, the threat was great enough to warrant such an exception. The private maritime security industry has been a victim of its own success. Anti-piracy measures have been so effective that smaller security firms are going out of business.
In terms of public sector methods, the EU, US and British navy have been successful in reducing piracy. The UK is supporting counter piracy missions-NATO’s Operation Ocean Shield & the EU’s NAVFOR Operation Atlanta in the Horn of Africa, providing Humanitarian and development assistance to Somalia to counteract the root causes of piracy as well as supporting the recognition of Somalia’s Exclusive Economic Zone, which will help protect its natural resources up to 200 nautical miles from, is coastal baselines. Another long-term solution is the role of the UNDP Somalia-aimed at working to improve the livelihoods of various stakeholders in fisheries sector in Puntland. This will result in improved regulation and development through public-private partnerships with the aim to create 20,000 long-term jobs. The US has also undertaken many naval operations to counter piracy and armed robbery off the coast of Somalia, primarily to protect vital trade routes and ensure supply chains are uninterrupted. Like with migration, piracy is widespread, particularly in South East Asia where “organised crime” as opposed to opportunists offload diesel fuel, disguised as regular vessels. It is more difficult to intercept such types of piracy but as controls become stricter and checks become more stringent the level of piracy across the world is falling. Cross-border cooperation, information sharing and joint manoeuvres create trust between countries and new protocols are making it harder for criminals to seek shelter in a neighbouring jurisdiction, making interdiction hugely more effective.
In conclusion, both challenges are severe and present major issues for governments, economies and people living in ‘host’ countries and above all those having to migrate or engage in piracy. Whilst we may frown upon migrants “taking our jobs” or pirates hijacking multi million dollar cargo ships, we must remember that in most if not all cases, the individuals have no choice. Whilst recent global governance and intervention by a number of players primarily the UN Security Council and the US and UK navy has reduced piracy and stemmed flows of migration this does not solve the problem. Instead more complex and expensive strategies are needed to tackle the root of the issue. There is however light at the end of the tunnel if all countries ‘pull their own weight’. If Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States who have taken meagre numbers of migrants can shed their status of being rich, xenophobic and hiding behind barriers then perhaps the next generation will see fewer conflicts and an effective management strategies that promotes a utilitarian approach. Moreover, migrants could massively contribute to the tax base of host countries, helping to cover welfare costs in particular pensions for ageing populations. In terms of the ‘ex fishermen’, if property laws are established and economic zones implemented, it could allow them to go back to fishing, reducing the incentive to disrupt trade and promoting ‘bottom up’ development which is vital in the long run. The oceans could retain their historic significance as a meeting place of nations, trading freely and cross‑fertilizing cultures, or it could descend to a place where insecurity overshadows all such activity.