Originally a lifeboat on Adriatica Queen, Panama, this boat was used to ferry migrants from Turkey to Samos. Image: adamansel52/Flickr

On the evening of January 11, 2020, a boatload of refugees sank in the Ionian Sea. Twelve human beings were killed in the desperate journey to find safety. Earlier that evening, another boat of refugees sank off the west coast of Turkey, killing 11 (including eight children).

Such wholly preventable tragedies are so common that they barely dent the headlines. Indeed, the Mediterranean Sea has become one of the world’s fastest growing graveyards, with over 20,000 lives of refugees lost there since 2014. Figures from the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration reveal that refugee deaths in the eastern Mediterranean are today at their highest level since the peak of the crisis in 2016, when over 3,800 refugees were reportedly killed in the crossing.

The grief generated by these deaths — compounded by the torturous uncertainty felt by so many families about the whereabouts of loved ones who have fled their home countries — is incalculable.

For many in the land known as Canada, such horrors seem wholly disconnected from our daily lives and self-identification as benevolent players on the world stage. Yet as refugee lawyers Geraldine Sadoway and Andrew Brouwer have pointed out, the government of Canada is very much responsible for these tragedies. 

“Quietly and systematically, in collaboration with European, Australian and U.S. allies, Canada has been closing every possible avenue of access for refugees,” they wrote in a 2015 op-ed that remains completely relevant today. These restrictions include imposing visa requirements that are then almost universally rejected when applications arrive, punishing airlines and other carriers for transporting those with potentially false documentation (which many refugees obviously require), broadening anti-smuggling laws to capture those engaged in humanitarian missions, and then criminalizing and penalizing those who are forced into “irregular” migration.

“By doing so, we drive them into the hands of smugglers who are reaping profits at the expense of the lives of desperate people … When we learn of the origin of the latest drowning victims, it is clear that they are refugees. They are Syrians, Iraqis, Somalis, Afghans, Eritreans, Libyans — fleeing from the horrific civil strife and brutal repression in their homelands. If they reached our refugee hearing rooms, most would be recognized as refugees and granted protection. And for that very reason, the federal government’s focus has been on keeping people from getting here in the first place.”

Among those players in what is known as the “interdiction” of refugees is the Canadian Border Services Agency, which has long had a published strategy to “push the border out,” meaning that anyone they may suspect is an “undesirable” traveller or who allegedly poses a risk to “Canada’s security and prosperity are identified as far away from the actual border as possible — ideally before a person departs their country of origin.”

Needless to say, as documented by groups such as the Canadian Network on Corporate Accountability, it is often Canadian foreign policy in support of overseas extractive industries that reinforces the structures of gross inequality and subsequent repression that contribute to the flow of refugees in the first place. And while the CBSA, along with its partners the RCMP and CSIS, invest endless resources in trying to prevent people from finding safety, another arm of the federal government which is broadly invested in the notion of “interdiction” is the war department.

Warships against refugees

Indeed, the Canadian military regularly participates in actions and training with allied war forces designed to make it harder for refugees to reach asylum. For example, in 2019, exercise “Phoenix Express” featured the participation of two Canadian warships in Mediterranean war games to test “maritime forces’ abilities to respond to irregular migration and combat illicit trafficking and the movement of illegal goods and materials.”

While that might sound all well and good on paper, the term “irregular migration” is a grossly negative term that unfairly casts a shadow over those who, desperate to flee, cannot go through what would be considered the normal or “regular” means of transit, the very ones the Canadian government has worked so diligently to shut down. That often forces refugees to turn to smugglers as the only potential escape route, increasing not only risks to the refugees, but also painting them with the brush of criminality.

Nonetheless, Canadian Maritime Component Commander Rear-Admiral Craig Baines proudly declared that with exercise Phoenix Express “our sailors will be supporting Canadian national interests in the region,” adding that this “will be an exceptional experience for our sailors as they bring a bit of Canada to our friends on the other side of the Atlantic.”

One of the ships involved in such war preparation and “interdiction” throughout the past six years of major Mediterranean tragedies is Canada’s heavily armed HMCS Fredericton, known as “The Stalker of the Seas.” In 2016, the ship was ordered to take part in a mission that, according to NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, was designed to assist “Greece, Turkey and the European Union with stemming the flow of migrants and refugees and coping with a very demanding situation.” While Stoltenberg insisted “this is not about stopping or pushing back refugee boats,” human rights groups within weeks documented the NATO warships doing exactly that, which one refugee advocate mourned as “the death knell of the asylum law.”

This history came to mind as a Canadian community of grief formed in early May to mourn the deaths of six Canadian Forces members in a helicopter crash in the same Ionian Sea that had claimed the lives of the aforementioned dozen refugees in January. The bodies of at least four of those killed in the crash sank to the bottom of the sea, joining thousands of others in a sad and symbolic interconnection that raises uncomfortable but necessary questions about what Canadian warships are doing (and not doing) in the Mediterranean. 

A statement released by Prime Minster Justin Trudeau called those killed in the crash “heroes,” adding: “Every day these brave Canadians in uniform put themselves in harm’s way to keep our country and our citizens safe, and together we will honour their service to Canada and our closest allies.”

The deaths felt especially profound to many during the time of COVID-19. A statement from the Royal Military College of Canada said their names will be added to a memorial where they will be “forever honoured with those who gave their lives while serving Canada.” As with many tragedies involving those in the military, one cannot help but feel anguish about the loss of lives so young, as well as the families left behind to suffer pain and emptiness while handling the loathsome task of dealing with a military bureaucracy that can often be heartless and cruel to veterans and surviving loved ones.

Maintenance failures

Some of the questions arising from the crash are of a technical nature. Were those six lives lost as a result of a corporate-military interplay that all too often places employees in faulty equipment? Indeed, once a weapons contractor sells its hardware, there is little accountability and oversight in place, and maintenance is often contracted out to private parties whose commitment to the bottom line can be harmful to human health. 

Is the ages-old expendability of those who work in the military reflected in a culture of gross disregard for their safety? Indeed, as the CBC reported in 2012, internal documents “suggest the Canadian government may be ignoring a problem the Americans warn could have ‘catastrophic’ consequences if fake parts fail on aircraft, missile systems and other military hardware.”

In addition, in 2016 the auditor general criticized the Canadian military when it “consistently underestimated the cost of maintaining military equipment, and signed bad maintenance and support contracts with outside companies.” Indeed, the auditor general found that “insufficient personnel were allocated to operate and support the equipment [which] reduced the level of equipment usage, availability, and maintenance that could be carried out.” This followed a 2011 report that, in reminding its readers that this was an issue also addressed in earlier reports, similarly found “weaknesses in implementation and oversight of its contracting approaches for maintenance and repair, deficient management information systems, and the lack of sufficient cost and performance information,” concluding that “the absence of this information impedes its ability to make informed decisions about the life-cycle management of its fleets or to determine whether it is putting enough funds each year into maintenance and repair.”

In 2001, the auditor general found that warships like the Fredericton, which are supposed to have 12 weeks of maintenance annually, were only receiving as little as half that amount in the late 1990s.

Meanwhile, the CBC recently reported that the CH-148 Cyclone helicopter involved in the crash “has had a cloud hanging over it for most of its history…[the] subject of high corporate and backroom political drama and hand-wringing among engineers and safety experts.”

While the safety concerns of those who work in the military are compelling (and hopefully will be part of a crash inquiry), there are broader questions that should seek to determine how “serving” Canada translates into the placement of warships and personnel in virtually every part of the globe, especially in areas that are known to be “resource-rich” and ripe for exploitation by Canadian mining and oil and gas firms.

Militarizing refugee interdiction

Canada’s role in multinational alliances such as the U.S. military’s AFRICOM contributes to the repressive violence that creates a refugee flow. That command is the busiest part of the U.S. military, engaged in ongoing, largely unreported crimes while growing its numbers exponentially. Canada, as part of AFRICOM, is involved in what London Review of Books writer Thomas Meaney describes as:

“the militarisation of large sections of North Africa [which] has been a bonanza for the global security industry. At arms fairs across Europe, the latest counter-migration offerings include a Bulgarian heat-seeking device to detect migrants before they get too close, a Motorola-designed ‘humanitarian’ drone and a weatherproof retina scanner. A five-metre-high barrier, constructed with funding from the US Defence Threat Reduction Agency and the Bundeswehr, now stretches for 168 kilometres along the Libyan-Tunisian border; Airbus has supplied the Tunisian border force with ground surveillance radar and night vision units that can be fixed to the scopes of automatic weapons. A German-developed system to determine the exact age of asylum seekers through the use of X-rays was recently rejected by the national medical association, so the German government invested in ultrasound technology to achieve the same end instead.”

Canada’s “interest” in the region led it, among other actions, to dispatch troops to Mali in 2018-19 as part of the Multidimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), for which they are reported to be carrying out “critical missions … as required.” But what, exactly, has been going on in Mali? As Meaney writes, “French soldiers involved in Operation Barkhane, Minusma’s anti-insurgency offshoot, have nominally been sent to mop up the chaos in central Mali, but their mandate has since been expanded and they now operate anti-migrant patrols.”

Meanwhile, despite having a presence in the Mediterranean Sea, the Canadian military has not concerned itself with the fate of those desperate to escape impossible conditions. Rather, the Fredericton’s current assignment is to be part of Operation REASSURANCE, whose purpose has nothing to do with “protecting” any of us but, rather, keeping afloat the world’s most violent military alliance. As defined on the war department’s website, the military exercises of the Fredericton and others aim to “reinforce NATO’s collective defence” and show “the strength of Allied solidarity.” And like the little boy who wants to show he can wear big boy pants, the mission is also to illustrate that the Canadian military “is a professional force that is ready for any task.”

That Canadian military force is the recipient of the largest single commitment of discretionary federal funding in Canada: $31.7 billion. For those whose safety and security is threatened by COVID-19, poverty, a lack of affordable housing and clean drinking water, racist policing, and other examples of inequality, it is entirely unclear how that use of federal funds improves their lot in life. For those trying to flee the results of Canadian foreign policy — as reflected, for example, in the bombing of Libya, the refusal to rein in Canadian corporations operating in repressive alliances abroad, and the interdiction of refugees — the violent results of that huge investment are clear.

Creating rationales for war

In his book Canada and the Great Power Game, Gwynne Dyer addresses the manner in which governments, academics and families of soldiers often mythologize wars in a manner that gives meaning and purpose to missions and campaigns that, looked at objectively, serve no purpose and expose their participants to unnecessary risk. Dyer writes:

“A professional military force needs enemies to justify its existence, and the First World War’s institutional bequest to Canada was a full array of professional armed forces … who were paid, quite literally, to identify foreign threats to Canadian national security … The threats they identified would vary from time to time, as would the measures they advocated to deal with them, but they were unlikely ever to declare that there was no threat to Canada. Of course they found threats, whether from the United States or elsewhere, and of course they asked for money to maintain their own profession as a ‘deterrent’ to those threats.”

Because of the scale of loss in any military campaign, Dyer says, as he did in reference to the First World War, “Propagandists tried to convince people that these terrible wars were fought for greater and more moral causes than the lesser wars of earlier times: turning them into crusades was the only way that they could justify the scale of the killing.”

During an interview to mark the centenary of the First World War, Dyer declared: “We lost so many people that we had to be believe it was about something important.” 

Asked whether or not it was something important, Dyer explained: “No, it wasn’t, of course it wasn’t, unless you think that being top dog in the great power international pecking order is important.”

Dyer was asked: “Are you saying, provocatively, that it was a waste of life?”

Dyer’s response was refreshing in its candour: “Of course I’m saying that, and it’s not at all provocative. You only have to ask the soldiers who were there.”

To rescue or to allow drowning

Despite the pandemic, war training goes on, as do efforts to keep refugees from fleeing. While Canada and its NATO partners invest in efforts to stem the flow of refugees, governments continue to criminalize those who take to the seas and, in accordance with pre-existing humanitarian law, seek to rescue those in rickety rafts and unseaworthy vessels attempting the dangerous Mediterranean crossing. Rescue ship captain Carola Rackete faces a lengthy trial and possible imprisonment for rescuing refugees in an act the Italian prime minister sickeningly likened to an act of war. Fellow ship captain Pia Klemp faces 20 years in prison for doing the same. In both instances, their efforts have been labeled aiding and abetting “illegal” migration, the same derogatory language used by the Canadian forces.

The arrest of humanitarians who have rescued tens of thousands of refugees is met with silence from Canadian diplomats, and has sent a chilling deterrent effect across the waves. As Klemp points out:

“where just two years ago there were more than 10 ships doing the search-and-rescue missions, there are hardly any today because all of them have to face problems on many different levels. You’re not allowed to enter port, you’re not allowed to leave port, ships are confiscated, flags withdrawn, crew investigated. There’s been a lot of stuff happening on this line of criminalizing the work of the NGOs and with that is a secondary result that it gets harder and harder to find crew. As a captain, you are the person with the overall responsibility, so the authorities will always pick you, and of course it gets more difficult to find people that will want to do that job. To put themselves in this exposed position.”

In addition, Klemp points out that merchant ships are increasingly fearful of rescuing those at risk of drowning because they, too, would fall under the same wave of repression that has resulted in charges against Klemp and Rackete. As a result, Klemp says, there are “a lot of people dying, drowning, in the Mediterranean, and also a lot of people being stuck in the detention camps in Libya, where torture, rape, death are daily methods.”

There has been some good news for those facing heavy criminalization for rescuing refugees. In January, Claus-Peter Reisch was acquitted of all charges for operating a rescue boat, while two weeks ago, a French court dismissed charges against Cédric Herrou, who, in a “crime” of solidarity, helped about 200 refugees cross the border from Italy into southern France. But waiting years for court processes to work their way out does not assist those in Libya tonight who are about to begin a dangerous crossing.

Finding home

In this time of pandemic response, when many are asking what kind of a different world we could be living in, could we reimagine an unarmed sea force that, instead of playing at war and defending the privileged, instead works to help those in distress? Better yet, let’s imagine a system that does not produce and reinforce the kind of inequality and repression that forces people to leave their homes in the first place.

As unknowingly intersecting communities mourn their loved ones during this pandemic, from families of refugees to loved ones of Canadian sailors lost half a world away, the words of poet Warsan Shire seem relevant, a reminder of what home is and could be:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

go home blacks
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
be hunger
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i don’t know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here 

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. “national security” profiling for many years.

Image: adamansel52/Flickr


Matthew Behrens

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who coordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. His column “Taking Liberties” examines connections...