Mediterranean Migrant Massacre: 500 dead as we recall ‘Operation Hannibal’

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has claimed that more than 500 migrants died last week when their vessel was deliberately sunk by traffickers off the Maltese coast. The revelation comes on the same day that news arrived of another migrant boat sinking off Libya with the loss of more than 200 lives.

The number of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean is increasing in 2014
The number of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean is increasing in 2014

As illegal migration across the Mediterranean has increased rapidly – fuelled by humanitarian and political crises in Africa and the Middle East, and exacerbated by a growing network of people traffickers and organized criminals – such incidents have become a frequent occurrence. Similar rising accident rates can be seen for passenger ferries in the developing world, particularly in South and Southeast Asia.

Whilst most of these ships have sunk because they were overcrowded or poorly-maintained, few have been the result of deliberate action. That is what makes the Maltese case particularly alarming. Such an event is rare in peacetime and seems counter-productive given the value to the traffickers of each illegal immigrant, who are forced to pay extortionate funds for their passage and are often put to work on their arrival in Europe.

Being aboard a sinking ship in open ocean must be considered one of the most terrifying experiences and consequently to sink a civilian vessel intentionally is a particularly grievous crime. Even during wartime there is often a reluctance to sink a vessel that may harbor civilian as well as military personnel and enemy ships sometimes rescue their drowning opponents, if only to take them prisoner.

A notable exception to this is the disastrous fate of ‘Operation Hannibal’, Nazi Germany’s attempt to evacuate civilians and soldiers from East Prussia and the Baltic occupied territories in the last few months of WWII. During this period, four of the most tragic maritime disasters in history occurred.

For many refugees, escape meant from East Prussia meant a hasty flight pursued by rampant Soviet forces, followed by maritime evacuation in treacherous waters
For many refugees, escape meant from East Prussia meant a hasty flight pursued by rampant Soviet forces, followed by maritime evacuation in treacherous waters

On the 30th January 1945, the Wilhelm Gustloff was sank by a torpedo from a Soviet submarine with the loss of some 9,000 lives, the majority civilians. This is considered the deadliest maritime incident in history.

On the 10th February 1945, the SS General von Steuben was also torpedoed by a Soviet submarine, leading to more than 4,000 fatalities, many of whom were East Prussian refugees.

On the 17th April 1945, the MV Goya (a captured Norwegian vessel) too was sunk by a Soviet submarine, killing more than 6,000 people, again including many civilians.

On the 3rd May 1945 the SS Cap Arcona (a former cruise liner) was sunk by the Royal Air Force (RAF), killing some 5,000 people, including many Eastern Europeans liberated from Nazi concentration camps. This was one of three German ships sunk that day.

The blazing SS Cap Arcona after the RAF attack
The blazing SS Cap Arcona after the RAF attack

There were other similar incidents throughout WWII (notably the Nazi sinking of several Soviet passenger ships) but none with such calculated intensity as during ‘Operation Hannibal’. Perhaps the resentment harbored towards the Germans for their instigation of the war prompted such a brutal reprisal. Maybe it was perceived as a necessary, if tragic, step to prevent the Wehrmacht remobilizing elsewhere. Either way, the fact that such a gross loss of civilian life was inevitable makes the acts unforgivable.

Whilst Germany’s role of aggressor in WWII has enabled such acts to be swept under the carpet, the same cannot be allowed to happen in the case of the migrant ship sunk off Malta.

It again reinforces the necessity to address both the issues precipitating mass illegal migration across the Mediterranean and the desperate need to dismantle the increasingly brazen trafficking networks that put thousands of innocent lives at risk for profit.

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Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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