“Ghost Ships” That Carry Live Souls

Last week, two separate ships packed full of Middle Eastern migrants were found floating off the Italian coast, having been abandoned by their crews:

The cargo ship Ezadeen, which set sail under a Sierra Leone flag from a Turkish port this week, was discovered drifting without a captain 40 nautical miles from the Italian coast. Italian coastguards were forced to intervene to prevent a disaster and possibly save the lives of the estimated 450 people on board, many of them thought to be Syrian refugees. … The Ezadeen was the second vessel in four days to be found sailing without a crew. Earlier in the week, 800 migrants on the Blue Sky M, a Moldovan-registered ship, were rescued by Italian coastguards when it was discovered sailing without an active crew five miles off the coast. The two incidents have left observers of migrant routes in the Mediterranean fearing that people-smugglers have found a new and ruthless way of working in the area despite a recent decision to scale back Italian rescue operations.

The plight of the Blue Sky M and Ezadeen point to a new tactic by migrant smugglers in the Mediterranean. It’s less awful than deliberately shipwrecking them, as smugglers did on one voyage in September, drowning hundreds of refugees. Still, these “ghost ships” underscore the danger of the Mediterranean crossing and the desperation of those who make it. Barbie Latza Nadeau revisits an interview from December with Moutassem Yazbek, a Syrian refugee who had made the crossing last year and explained how the smuggling system works:

In many cases, he says, the smuggler kingpins hire refugees with seafaring experience to work as crewmembers on the ships in exchange for discounted passage. They are not the actual traffickers, Yazbek says, so generally the other refugees protect their identity. On his boat that came into Sicily three weeks ago, Yazbek says the refugee “crew members” hired by the smugglers were never exposed. Instead the refugees told the authorities that they abandoned the ship at sea, when in reality the men who piloted the ship blended in and were treated no differently than the other refugees.

“We weren’t protecting the smugglers—we were protecting the poor people that helped the ship to reach that stage,” he says. “Those people are refugees who worked as a crew to save some money. In my opinion I think that the smugglers are real criminals. If not, they wouldn’t make the prices so high; they would accept a smaller margin. I think they are anything but heroes.” Frontex estimates that the smugglers on the two large cargo ships that arrived in Italy last week cleared more than $3 million after the price of the aging vessel was subtracted.

But Melanie McDonagh isn’t sure how much sympathy she has for these particular refugees:

The Syrians now arrived in Italy paid between $4,000 and $6,000 for their passage. Many of those on deck were young and seem relatively fit. We are not talking here about the huddled masses, the human debris of the Lebanese or Jordanian refugee camps, but the more prosperous of those displaced by the conflicts in Syria and Eritrea.

If we, Europe, were to take the neediest refugees it might not be these. And if their efforts are rewarded with permanent residency in Europe, ultimately with citizenship, and in the case of those who get to Sweden, with the right to bring their families with them, then the gamble will have paid off. They have jumped the queue ahead of those perhaps more deserving of refuge abroad. They made a rational calculation about the terrible risks of going to sea with criminal traffickers and, more fortunate than those who died during the year crossing the Mediterranean (an estimated 3,500), they got lucky.

Meanwhile, Patrick Kingsley notes that the “Arab Spring” has generated the world’s largest wave of migrations since World War II:

Wars in Syria, Libya and Iraq, severe repression in Eritrea, and spiralling instability across much of the Arab world have all contributed to the displacement of around 16.7 million refugees worldwide. A further 33.3 million people are “internally displaced” within their own war-torn countries, forcing many of those originally from the Middle East to cross the lesser evil of the Mediterranean in increasingly dangerous ways, all in the distant hope of a better life in Europe.

“These numbers are unprecedented,” said Leonard Doyle, spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration. “In terms of refugees and migrants, nothing has been seen like this since world war two, and even then [the flow of migration] was in the opposite direction.”

Firebombs And “Love Bombs” For Swedish Mosques

Over the holidays, Sweden’s Muslim community was shaken by a string of attacks on mosques in several cities:

Swedish police launched a manhunt Thursday after the third arson attack against a mosque in a week, amid growing tensions over the rise of a far right anti-immigration movement.”People saw a man throwing something burning at the building,” police in Uppsala said in a statement, adding that the mosque in eastern Sweden did not catch fire and that the suspect had left behind “a text on the door expressing contempt for religion.” …

Thursday’s attack in Sweden’s fourth-largest city came just three days after a late-night blaze at a mosque in Esloev in the south, which police suspect was also arson. On Christmas Day, five people were injured when a petrol bomb was thrown through the window of a mosque in Eskilstuna, east of the capital Stockholm.

Local residents in Uppsala responded to the attack by “love-bombing” the damaged mosque with notes of support. Amanda Taub applauds:

The demonstration and “love bombing” were a powerful way for ordinary Swedes to reject racism and show support for Muslims. But the march also carried broader political significance, because it showed that Swedes felt a duty to publicly reaffirm the country’s identity as a place that is tolerant and welcoming towards immigrants.

In many countries, anti-immigrant populism dominates the public conversation about immigration not because it necessarily represents the majority view, but because people with more moderate and tolerant views don’t make it a priority to speak up publicly. These demonstrations suggest that Sweden may be different: thousands of people took to the streets to say that they are not willing to stay silent, and will not allow extremists to dominate the debate.

Still, many Muslims throughout Europe have reason to be wary of their neighbors; a new poll finds that one in eight Germans would join an anti-Muslim march if one were organized in their hometown:

The survey highlighted growing support in Germany, as in other European Union countries including Britain and Sweden, for parties and movements tapping into voter fears that mainstream politicians are too soft on immigration.

Some members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc worry that they risk losing support to the euro-sceptic Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, which has shifted its focus to immigration and includes many who also back the PEGIDA protest movement — Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West. PEGIDA is holding weekly rallies in the eastern city of Dresden, and attracted more than 17,000 people to a Dec. 22 rally. A few small marches have taken place in other towns, and it plans to stage further rallies in other German cities.

Welcome To The Eurozone … Now Empty Your Pockets

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The dubiously elite continental currency club admitted a new member over the holidays:

On Thursday, Lithuania became the 19th country to join the euro zone. The move made it the last Baltic nation to adopt the currency, and the timing was inauspicious—the euro looks more and more like an economic death sentence as depressions spread across the continent. Proving skeptics right, less than 24 hours later, the currency’s value dropped to a four-year low after European Central Bank President Mario Draghi seemed to suggest that the bank might start printing money to combat what he called “excessively low” inflation. The Financial Times noted that with the latest dip, the euro’s value “has fallen by 12 percent against the dollar in the past six months.”

Matt O’Brien calls Vilnius’s gambit “another reminder that the euro, which isn’t so much a currency as a doomsday device for turning recessions into depressions, has always been much more about politics than economics”:

In Lithuania’s case, those politics come down to four words: breaking free of Russia.

That, after all, sums up their last 100 years of history. … Indeed, it’s no coincidence that Lithuania’s support for joining the euro has gone from 41 percent in 2013 to 63 percent today in the wake of Russia’s incursion into Ukraine. Freedom, in other words, is worth a euro-induced depression. It’d better be, because that’s what Lithuania has gotten. It pegged its currency to the euro back in 2002, you see, so it’s been importing the euro-zone’s monetary policy for over 12 years now. And, like the other Baltics, that’s ended quite poorly for them. Lithuania went on a borrowing binge — its current account deficit reached a staggering 14 percent of GDP in 2007 — as rates that were too low for its still-catching up economy pushed housing prices if not into the stratosphere, at least into the lower level clouds.

At the same time, Mike Bird notes, the chances the Greece will take the heretofore unthinkable step of exiting the euro have increased:

That’s because Syriza, the radical leftist coalition that wants to tear up the country’s bailout rules, looks likely to win [the general election on Jan. 25]. That means a game of chicken with the EU institutions and International Monetary Fund. If either side refuses to back down, there could be market chaos, bank runs, and a forced exit from the euro. … It’s not Syriza’s official policy to leave the euro, but a solid portion of the group are happy that route, and others may join them — if pushed.

The Greeks’ disillusionment with the currency stems largely from the European Central Bank’s unwillingness to take steps to boost employment in peripheral countries at the risk of increasing inflation, which Germany (the eurozone hegemon) fears. However, David R. Kotok thinks that’s about to change:

The economies of Europe are on a very flat growth path. They have high unemployment, large structural impediments, no apparent inflation, and either extraordinarily low growth or actual shrinkage, depending on which country we examine. The tool of European fiscal policy is hampered by huge deficits and lots of unfunded social liabilities.

Monetary expansion is the only game in town. Interest rates have already fallen to levels below zero in some shorter-term instruments and near zero in others. We expect a large monetary stimulus to originate from the European Central Bank as early as the end of this month. Markets are building this expectation, which will mean a huge market disappointment if the ECB does nothing.

(Chart via xe.com)

The New Greek Drama

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Yesterday, Greece’s Prime Minister Antonis Samaras called snap elections after the parliament rejected his candidate for president a third time:

The trigger for the elections was the failure at the third and final attempt of Samaras’s bid to push through his nominee for president, Stavros Dimas. Dimas attracted the support of 168 lawmakers in the 300-seat chamber, short of the 180 votes required. Under the constitution, the legislature must now be dissolved and a date for elections set. Samaras said he’ll meet tomorrow with the incumbent president, Karolos Papoulias, and ask for the election to be held on Jan. 25. That’s just weeks before Greece’s 240 billion-euro ($293 billion) bailout expires.

Mark Gilbert explains why Greece’s political crisis could have ramifications for the entire Eurozone:

Polls suggest that the opposition Syriza party may win power in Greece; its leader, Alexis Tsipras, wants to unwind government spending cuts to halt what he calls a “humanitarian crisis” in his country. If he does win the prime minister’s job on Jan. 25, the EU will need to take his concerns seriously, recognize that fiscal backtracking is preferable to seeing Greece exit the euro, and concede that the unfortunate solution to the nation’s unsustainable debt is to forgive some of it. …

The EU’s apparatchiks will need to take seriously Syriza’s demands for an easing of Greece’s economic strictures — or risk turning the political drama into an economic crisis. If Greece were to abandon the common currency project, it would call into question the membership credentials of other euro nations. (Note that Portuguese bonds are also taking fright today.)

Danny Vinik also warns of a Eurozone crisis if Syriza wins:

[M]arkets are nervous. Germany has an outsized influence at both the ECB and European Commission, and is determined to use its financial leverage to force Greece to make structural changes to its economy. If Germany becomes determined to hold a hard-line negotiations with the Syriza-run Greek government, the odds of a “Grexit” could rise substantially. Already on Monday, yields on 10-year Greek bonds rose nearly 1 percentage point, to 9.7 percent. That could provoke similar fears in other periphery nations in the Eurozone.

That is all months off. Greek attitudes toward Syriza may shift if the party’s chance of gaining control of the government increases. There may be another political stalemate with parties unable to form a governing coalition. But the risks are realnot just for Europe’s economy, but the world’s.

Yglesias runs down some other possible outcomes:

One can also imagine a scenario in which parties of the far-left and far-right (including the fascist Golden Dawn) gain enough votes that no politically viable coalition is mathematically workable. In that case, well, it’s not really clear what would happen. Something along these lines occurred briefly in 2012 leading to a short-term “caretaker” government of Brussels- and Frankfurt-approved technocrats. That could happen again, or you could have the kind of more severe political crisis that sometimes occurs when a country endures a years-long spell of unemployment over 20 percent.

But Douglas Elliott downplays the potential for a Greek tragedy:

It is quite unlikely that Greece will end up falling out of the Euro system and no other outcome would have much of a contagion effect within Europe. Even if Greece did exit the Euro, there is now a strong possibility that the damage could be confined largely to Greece, since no other nation now appears likely to exit, even in a crisis.

Neither Syriza nor the Greek public (according to every poll) wants to pull out of the Euro system and they have massive economic incentives to avoid such an outcome, since the transition would almost certainly plunge Greece back into severe recession, if not outright depression. So, a withdrawal would have to be the result of a series of major miscalculations by Syriza and its European partners. This is not out of the question, but the probability is very low, since there would be multiple decision points at which the two sides could walk back from an impending exit.

Likewise, Neil Irwin sees no signs of a periphery-wide panic:

[W]hat we’re not seeing is the kind of contagion that was widespread from 2010 to 2012. At that time, any sign that the crisis was worsening in Greece immediately translated, through the financial markets, into greater panic about the much larger European economies of Spain and Italy. … But Greece’s latest troubles don’t seem to be adding much to economic and financial uncertainty beyond Greece. Spanish and Italian bond prices fell a bit Monday and their yields rose a bit, but Spain’s 10-year borrowing costs are now at 1.67 percent and Italy’s at 1.98 percent, much closer to Germany than to Greece.

Europe’s Other Secessionists

In the face of staunch opposition from the Spanish government, which declared the act unconstitutional, some 2.3 million residents of Catalonia turned out on Sunday to vote in a non-binding referendum on independence from Spain. Over 80 percent voted “yes”:

Because the straw poll did not contain the electoral guarantees of a true referendum, and was organized and promoted entirely by pro-sovereignty groups, it was largely expected that those opposed to independence would not turn up to vote (and indeed, the percentage of returns against both statehood and independence was a mere 4.5%; an additional 10% voted in favor of statehood—meaning greater autonomy within a federal-style system—but rejected independence). If yesterday’s poll is indeed an accurate reflection of what Catalonia could expect in a binding referendum with greater electoral guarantees and a high level of participation, then somewhere between 40 and 50% of the total eligible population would vote in favor of independence.

Bershidsky interprets the vote as a message to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who “has consistently refused to deal with the political, rather than the legal, side of the issue”:

Rajoy has signaled his willingness to negotiate with the Catalan government, but only from a position of strength. That’s no way to approach a region where close to 2 million people are unhappy with the way they are being governed from Madrid. Spain is the only European country where people feel a stronger regional than national identity, according to the World Values Survey. That makes centralization a bad idea. The best option for the Spanish government is to go back to the 2006 Statute of Autonomy, which was passed by the parliament and approved by 2.5 million Catalan voters — but then emasculated in 2010 by the Constitutional Court. By granting Catalans exactly as much independence as they have always asked for, that would effectively put an end to the secession movement.

Diego Muro also urges Madrid to listen:

Madrid’s approach has been needlessly adversarial. Rather than resist Catalan’s aspirations, the Spanish government should welcome its commitment to a democratic process. After all, Spain has a long history of nationalist groups―most notably the Basque nationalist group ETA―turning to terrorism, rather than the ballot box, to pursue their goals. Madrid has chosen to portray its disagreement with Catalonia in legalistic terms. But the crux of the matter is a political problem: how to accommodate the region’s aspiration for independence within Spain’s existing national framework. The sooner the Spanish government recognizes the true nature of the problem, the sooner it can restore calm throughout the country.

The Bloomberg View editors believe Catalans would opt for union in the end, provided Rajoy abandons his disdainful approach to their concerns:

The first step to persuading Catalans to stay in Spain would be to map out a legal, constitutional route to giving them their say. Catalonia’s proposed secession would be even more fraught with risk than was Scotland’s. It would carve away about 20 percent of Spain’s economy, compared with 8 percent for the U.K. Investors in Catalonia’s bonds certainly believe independence would be at least as bad for the region as for the rest of Spain. So in a real campaign, in which voters are confronted with the realities of assuming up to 200 billion euros ($250 billion) of Spanish debt, the case for unity should be winnable.

Drowned In Search Of Freedom

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Barbie Latza Nadeau tells the ugly story of how as many as 500 Middle Eastern migrants seeking refuge in Europe were deliberately shipwrecked off the coast of Malta by their traffickers last week:

Unlike most of the traffickers who eventually either abandon the ships or meld in with the migrants, these traffickers had devised a bucket brigade plan to pass their human cargo between a series of increasingly smaller vessels mid-journey, always taking the bigger boats back for more refugees, according to survivors. … The only problem with the plan to pass the passengers was that eventually the migrants refused. According to two Palestinian survivors who spent a day and a half in the water before being rescued, the boat they had been on for just a day was met by yet another smaller vessel “for the umpteenth time” about 300 miles off the coast of Malta and the migrants, who were by then extremely tired, hungry and sea wary, were ordered to once again jump onto the smaller ship to continue the journey.

According to reports from refugee aid groups in Sicily who spoke to the survivors, when the migrants refused to transfer yet again, the trafficker from the mother ship allegedly hopped onto the waiting ship, which then rammed the vessel full of migrants until it sank. The smugglers then sped off, leaving as many as a hundred people floating in the water. Only a dozen survived, including two children who were saved when a merchant ship called the Pegasus spotted them floating in the sea. They said that the rest eventually sank beneath the surface—some after bobbing in the water clinging to debris for several hours.

Zooming out, Dara Lind explains how dangerous that voyage is:

Crossing the Mediterranean is much deadlier than crossing from Mexico into the US. The National Foundation for American Policy found that the deadliest year on record for the US/Mexico crossing was 2012, when 477 migrants were killed. That’s about 1 of every 1000 migrants apprehended crossing the border illegally. In 2011, which was the deadliest year for the Mediterranean crossing before this year, 1,500 migrants were killed: 1 in every 50 migrants who crossed. And the IOM’s initial estimates for this year indicate that 2014 will be twice as lethal as 2011: they estimate that 3000 migrants have been killed so far making the voyage.

(Map from Pew.)