What would have been new about bombing migrant boats?

GUE/NGL (flickr)

The European Union has made it clear that bombs were not part of the plan for war against people smuggling after all. “No one is thinking of bombing,” said Federica Mogherini, EU foreign policy chief, yesterday. The alleged plans for bombing had already caused widespread alarm and protest.

But what would have been new about bombing the boats that might have  ferried migrants and refugees across the Mediterranean? On the one hand, such action would have been unprecedented and dramatic — the ultimate militarization of migration control.

On the other hand, it would simply have been another mode of a well-established line of policy: making it as difficult as possible for people in need of protection to reach Europe. To me, this is the most thought-provoking aspect of the hypothetical bombing plot; it would not have been something radically new.

The list of measures obstructing escape towards Europe is long. Potential asylum seekers are subject to visa requirements; airlines are fined if they bring passengers without valid visas; anyone who helps victims of persecution seek protection in Europe is charged with human smuggling. Bombing boats would have stood out because of the dramaturgical effects, not because of its impact on migrants.

And because European leaders prefer to avoid the drama, bombing is off the table. But the vow to “identify, capture and destroy” smuggler’s vessels still stands.

The bombing controversy highlights how European leaders are trying to have it both ways: upholding the principle of granting protection from persecution, but actually doing so as rarely as possible. The war on human smuggling–with or without bombs–is key to reconciling these irreconcilable objectives.

Photo by GUE/NGL (flickr), cc-licensed.

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