Why should ‘we’ care? Because the tragedies in the Mediterranean are the the tip of the iceberg

Professor of Modern and Contemporary History, Lancaster University Aristotle Kallis writes.

The ongoing, unfolding tragedy of abandoned and sinking migrant boats in the Mediterranean is a major, scandalous failure of policy-making and responsibility. Watching the news while living in the UK, I am struck by how little reflection exists on why the rescue operations have become so ineffective and how much more acute the problem has become in the past years. No word on the decision of the UK government (among other governments) to cut off funding for these operations and pass the bucket to those states that, by virtue of their geography, are on the receiving end of these migration flows. It is not only unfair; it is a slap in the face of human rights and humanitarian responsibilities of the so-called ‘developed world’.

Why should ‘we’ care? Because the tragedies in the Mediterranean are the the tip of the iceberg. War, persecution, poverty, and natural disasters in different parts of Africa and Asia create a chain reaction of flows towards Europe, sustaining a network of ruthless exploitation along the long, tortuous way. It is frankly no use shedding tears about the final stage of this process while deliberately ignoring (or taking decisions that lead to a deterioration of) the buildup. I note the cheek of anti-immigration parties and politicians across Europe: they are invariably the ones who advocate cutting off international aid and tightening border controls in order to discourage migrants from even beginning their journey. Rarely has a more idiotic policy agenda has been advocated with so little concern for cause and effect; and rarely has it been so successful with public opinion.

Tragedies such as the recent one in the Mediterranean happen because people feel that they have no other alternative than to embark on a precarious journey to some kind of vague ‘better life’ in Europe. If the policy of European states is to ignore these facts on the ground, throw a few pennies at these countries without a concerted policy of infrastructure building or conflict-management there, and then pretend that the migration flows caused by the failure of all the above do not concern them, because it is a policing matter, then we will continue to miss the point and make such tragedies even more frequent.

It is of course of hellishly complex problem with no easy fixes. Foreign policy, international aid and development, citizenship and labour laws within the EU, policing external and internal borders – all form part of the jigsaw. I believe in ‘enlightened self-interest’ – this is what motivates policies such as welfare state, international aid etc. ‘We’ make a sacrifice because we believe that making it will address more effectively a wider problem that also affects us (as well as others). It is however depressing that the current debate on the EU level concerns policing, attacking the networks of illegal transport, and the distribution of the migrants within the EU. A fairer distribution of the migrants who enter the EU is of course long overdue; but it should be only one part of a wider solution that first and foremost addresses the causes of the flow itself in faraway lands. What the EU is trying to do now is akin to what the UK government idiotically tried to do with regard to Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants: tell them that life in the UK is horrible (remember those laughable posters??), make it difficult for them to enter (exemptions, strict border controls), and have no interest in the objective conditions that lead people to make the very difficult decision to emigrate. Policing, especially one that operates on the basis of an inhuman mentality of discouraging migrants by making it hard and life-threatening for them to try to enter the EU. This is a policy of criminal abdication of responsibility.

If anything, the recent events underline how important international cooperation really is; and why these decisions must be taken on the EU level. Both the problems that they raise and the principles that they touch on are international by nature. Neither Italy nor Greece or Spain can solve these problems on their own. The chain of events that leads to this overfilled boats attempting to cross the Mediterranean points to failures that are collective, responsibilities that are international, problems that – one way or another – become internationalised, and solutions that cannot be trusted on egotistical nation-states. To be fair to them, crisis-hit Italy and Greece are doing a decent job at the moment. By contrast, the ‘advanced’, prosperous economies of the EU have been washing their hands off, approaching the whole question as one mostly relating to policing individual borders. It has got to stop. International cooperation, based on enlightened self-interest, addressing the full range of causes and effects, is the only way. In the meantime, support to the countries of reception and better monitoring of the crossings will help, as will a fairer distribution of undocumented immigrants after they have arrived, in the context of humanitarian law and fundamental human rights. But even this last bit, however laudable, is a short-term remedy.

I understand the intention of EU states to reduce the migration flows into Europe. It is a pragmatic approach. The ideal world would not be one where migrants are welcomed but one where people would not feel coerced into leaving their countries in the first place. But It is just that EU states and politicians attack the very tip of the iceberg, ignoring what lies underneath. The problems associated with these tragic events, and the solutions in the longer term, are supremely international – not just among EU states but across the board. Sometimes tragedies prompt forward thinking; it is regrettable that we need a tragedy to open our eyes but, if it does, then at least not everything is lost. I hope this is the case here. Let’s see what happens on Thursday at the EU summit.


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