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Stopping the (rescue) boats

There are still tens of thousands of people getting on boats to cross the Mediterranean and seek asylum in Europe - more than 70 000 so far this year. It's not as big news as it used to be, but some people are still keenly aware. Top of that list is the EU, which is still wrangling deals with transit countries to try to stem the flow. Various NGOs are doing their best to run rescue operations for boats that end up in distress partway through the journey.

But also in the mix are the 'Identitarians', a network of far-right nationalists who love European Christendom. To defend it from the scourge of vulnerable people fleeing war in Libya, they've taken it upon themselves to disrupt rescue operations by hiring their own boats and running interference when NGOs try to set out. That is: they're raising money anonymously so that migrants will drown.

Even by alt-right standards, this is breathtakingly immoral - very directly causing deaths in the pursuit of your campaign to keep out foreigners is, plain and simple, ethnic cleansing. It should erase any lingering suspicions that we're just talking about racist trolls who can traumatise online but not achieve much in the real world. But the more important lesson is about how we've let this happen.

This kind of thing is not legal, and these people aren't going to get away with it on any large scale. The reason it's illegal is only that you can't, in general, deliberately obstruct other vessels at sea. The fact that these are rescue ships and the goal of the obstruction is to kill migrants has nothing to do with it, because European governments are completely indifferent - at best - to whether these rescue operations run. Frontex, the EU's border agency, is semi-constantly criticising the NGOs which operate them, and some politicians have explicitly said they attract more migrants and, as a result, lead to more deaths at sea. In this context it's not that surprising that racists feel empowered to attack their vessels. That wouldn't happen if life-saving charities weren't being demonised - let alone if the rescue operations were actually being run by the state. Instead, 40% of rescues at sea are not conducted by any government, and the stated desire of many high-up in Europe is that those rescues shouldn't happen at all.

This all goes back to the 'pull factor' notion, which inevitably emerges in every debate about refugee policy, and which it's hard to know whether to treat as a bad-faith canard or a sober and difficult reality. It's undeniable that various parts of receiving-state policy affect how many people choose to make the journey to Europe (or Australia, or wherever the argument finds itself.) It's nothing like the principal driver of refugee movements, and the effects are only ever at the margin, but they're certainly real. But trying to discourage those movements means treating migrants badly - often horrifically badly, and in the grotesque extreme that Europe has reached, actually leaving many of them to die. That's been the tilt of European policy since late 2014, when Operation Mare Nostrum was replaced by a smaller-scale Frontex rescue operation and politicians started talking about pull factors.

Migrant numbers have fallen - so far this year, 71 000 compared to 205 000 in the same period last year. It would be extremely credulous to ascribe that whole drop to European policy. But even if you do, the cost is that more of the people who come are dying: proportionally, twice as many. A 65% drop in the number of migrants led to a less than 35% fall in the number of deaths.

It's enough to make you wonder whether reducing deaths is actually the primary target at all. For those who maintain it is, and insist on defending this 'sugar off the table' approach, it's time to face up to the fact that there is no Goldilocks policy where we say we'll leave people to drown, then they don't come, and nobody drowns. Leaving people to die is leaving people to die. It's a choice, one that Europe - with only a minor assist from the avowed racists and their murder Kickstarter - appears to be happy with.