Call them the new boat people. The catastrophe unfolding in the Mediterranean, where hundreds perished Sunday in the sinking of the flimsy vessel in which they sought to flee Africa, is emerging as an enormous story. “We are facing a European emergency,” Italy’s foreign minister, Paolo Gentiloni, said at an emergency meeting of his counterparts Monday at Luxembourg, and I wonder whether the crisis could be forced into the agenda of the G7.
The leaders of the seven big industrial nations are due to summit in June at Schloss Elmau, Bavaria, and the Mediterranean Sea crisis deserves to be on their agenda. U.S. President Barack Obama gave a joint press conference on Friday in Washington with Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy, and suggested that the Italians and the Gulf States would have to take the lead in restoring some kind of peace to Libya. It would be better for Obama to lead than to delegate.
That’s the lesson of what happened in 1978, as the leading industrial nations were about to gather for their annual summit in Tokyo as the Indochina refugee crisis — which gave us the phrase “boat people” — was breaking as a wave of human misery in the seas off Vietnam. We don’t really have an accurate tally of the thousands who perished while fleeing the communists who had conquered Indochina, but we do know that the scale of the crisis was astounding.
In the spring of 1978, Malaysia’s then deputy-prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, startled the world with a bizarre threat. Boatloads of refugees from Indochina had been landing on Malaysian sands for weeks when Mahathir declared that, absent a commitment by the wealthy nations to take the refugees, Malaysia would force back into the sea some 74,000 who had managed to reach its beaches. “If they try sinking the boats, they won’t be rescued,” he warned. “They will drown.”
Then things suddenly turned. As leaders of the big industrial nations were preparing for Tokyo, the Wall Street Journal’s Asian edition issued an editorial called “A Job for the Summit,” calling on the major powers to lay aside their agenda and turn their attention to the “tidal wave of human misery” breaking on the beaches of Southeast Asia. The Washington Post promptly endorsed the Journal’s editorial (“right on all counts,” it declared), pointing out, among other things, that the Thais had begun forcing refugees back to Cambodia.
Then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter then scrambled to rewrite the agenda of a summit that was only days hence. The result was a plan in which over the next 20 years more than 2 million persons were given refugee in other countries, one American scholar, Courtland Robinson of Johns Hopkins University, told me Sunday. He reckons that America eventually took more than 1.25 million; Canada, Australia, and France another half million. Israel took 300, according to a dispatch in Aish.com.
These populations have been a boon for the refugee host countries, proof that what the economists like to call human capital can multiply in free countries. But can a boon like that come from what is happening along the Mediterranean? The religious nature of the current war — the nihilism of the Islamist factions — makes it hard to imagine that the big powers are going to react to the current crisis the same way. All the more logical for the G7 heads of government to get involved.
There is, after all, an eerie similarity in the language we are hearing in the current crisis and what we heard after the communist conquest of Indochina. Renzi was quoted in the New York Times Sunday as blaming “human traffickers,” whom Renzi described as “the slave drivers of the 21st century.” That’s the kind of talk we heard about the operators of the big boats hustling the ethnic Chinese out of Vietnam. The traffickers are but a symptom, not a cause.
Some of Renzi’s words Friday seemed to echo the long-ago warnings of Mahathir Mohamad. “It’s a sea, not a cemetery,” Renzi said of the Mediterranean. “The problem in this moment is the situation on the ground in Libya.” Then the warning: “Please allow me to be very clear. Peace in Libya — either the tribes do this or no one is going to do this.” Meaning, the Mediterranean could well become a cemetery.
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Could Israel offer some leadership in this crisis? During the Indochina boatlift, according to the Aish.com dispatch, an Israeli freighter, the Yuvali, rescued one group in the South China Sea, only to be turned away from Asian ports. It brought them home to Israel, where at least some Vietnamese refugees were welcomed personally by Menachem Begin. They triggered memories of the S.S. Struma, a disabled ship carrying Jewish refugees that in 1942 was towed by the Turks into the Mediterranean and sunk by a Soviet submarine. Some 790 of the 791 persons aboard were lost.
Seth Lipsky is editor of The New York Sun. He was foreign editor and a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal, founding editor of the Forward and editor from 1990 to 2000.