The Washington Post Column

Brace yourself for another wave of drowning refugees — unless Europe takes action

“I took hold of the forearm of the baby and pulled the light body protectively into my arms at once, as if it were still alive … It held out its arms with tiny fingers into the air, the sun shone into its bright, friendly but motionless eyes.” — Martin, a volunteer at Sea-Watch, May 27

Syria has made us all cynical, a friend of mine said recently. He meant that the photographs of the Syrian war — a war we cannot stop, or even ameliorate — had made us all feel that we are incapable of doing anything, anywhere, to help anyone resolve any crisis.

But that cynicism pales beside the bad emotions which are now provoked by the photographs of migrants leaving Syria, or Libya, or anywhere else, walking or sailing to Europe. Brace yourself for another summer of pictures: Rickety boats, sinking or capsizing; people swimming or drowning; bodies washed up on the shore. All of them will look like pictures you’ve seen before. Last September, a photograph of a Syrian child washed up on a Turkish beach sparked a wave of emotion which crested when Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, announced that her country would accept desperate Syrians and resettle them in Germany.

This week, as hundreds more refugees are reported drowned, Sea-Watch, an extraordinary German charity which rescues people from the Mediterranean, has published another photograph of another drowned baby. The picture appeared together with a statement: “In the wake of the disastrous events it becomes obvious to the organizations on the ground that the calls by EU politicians to avoid further death at sea sum up to nothing more than lip service. … If we do not want to see such pictures we have to stop producing them.”

Sea-Watch calls for “safe and legal passage” for all would-be immigrants to Europe. But that, we now know, is an impossibility. In the nine months that have passed since Merkel’s generous gesture, political systems all across Europe have been profoundly destabilized by the backlash. Anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric have fueled nationalist and nativist politicians everywhere from Britain to Austria, affecting even countries which have no immigrants at all. Last year, I argued that a Europe which becomes politically dysfunctional will be incapable of helping anyone else. We have now just about reached that moment. Sea-Watch is right: Europeans are no longer moved by photographs. “Lip service” will be paid, and nothing more.

Yet even now, Europe is not without options: There remains one which has yet to be tried. For the past several years, a joint European naval force has patrolled the coast of Somalia, and successfully ended the plague of Somali pirates. A similar force could be sent to patrol the Libyan coast, to pick up refugees on the southern side of the Mediterranean and to return them to Libya. In Libya, it might then be possible to offer humanitarian aid, some security, some advice about what to do or where to go next.

This isn’t the nicest or friendliest solution to the problem, but it is a realistic one. It would discourage more people from making deadly voyages. It would end the impression that “Europe’s borders are open,” the impression that is fueling the nationalist surge. It would build on the existing cooperation between Europe’s navies. It would build Europe’s almost nonexistent foreign policy capacity. Now it remains for Europe’s leaders to take the decision and staunch the cynicism before it consumes us all.