A better answer to the migrant crisis

The Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s could serve as a model solution to our own migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. Matthew Partridge reports.

The death toll from the recent capsizing of a boat carrying migrants from Libya across the Mediterranean is now estimated to be at least 920. Last Friday, Labour leader Ed Miliband launched a "stinging attack" on prime minister David Cameron's Libyan policy, reports The Independent.

Miliband claimed that Cameron's hands-off approach after the removal of Colonel Gaddafi had created instability in Libya. The ensuing chaos has led to thousands of north Africans drowning in the Mediterranean as they try to flee the crisis.

Conservatives accused him of "weaponising the highly emotive crisis", says Tim Stanley in The Daily Telegraph. He didn't criticise the war itself: Labour was 100% behind it. But he's right toraise the issue. People assume the solution lies either in cruelty or open borders.

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But it's more complex than that we should "be compassionate where possible, tough where necessary". Those with genuine cases for asylum should be processed and granted. However, applications could be assessed within Africa itself, reducing the likelihood of those without a good case going underground and turning up at Calais. Similarly, penalties for illegal economic migration should be higher "only if people understand the consequences of breaking EU law will they cease trying to find work there".

When Singapore cracked down on sham marriages and began deporting illegals immediately, numbers halved in two years. It may seem hard-hearted but "the desperate, miserable flight across the Mediterranean benefits nobody except the traffickers".

The lucrative nature of people smuggling is one reason for its longevity, notes The Economist. The United Nations estimates that the route from Libya to Europe alone is a $170m industry. And even if the situation in Libya were tightened up, new routes would emerge. According to the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, notes John McDermott in the Financial Times, at least 80% of the people leaving from north Africa have paid smugglers to take them.

And these criminal syndicates have become more professionalised. The EU has vowed to capture and destroy the smugglers' vessels before they can be used, notes The Guardian's Patrick Kingsley. Yet the obvious problem is that smugglers do not maintain a separate, independent harbour of clearly marked vessels: they buy them off fishermen at a few days' notice. So to destroy their potential pool, the EU would need to "raze whole fishing ports".

Is there any better answer? Australia's hardline stance of putting boat people in external detention camps, touted as a possible solution, costs around $2.3bn a year, notes The Economist. A better model would be how the world cooperated to deal with the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s, where merchant ships were compensated for their rescue efforts and more than one million people were resettled around the world.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

Follow Matthew on Twitter: @DrMatthewPartri