The truth that lies at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea is a humanitarian crisis whose full scale has only recently and reluctantly come into public acknowledgement. Just like the ever-increasing number of corpses that escape the sunken wrecks of failed crossings and float onto the sandy beaches of European holidaymakers, the buoyancy of the crisis gradually emerges in the collective European consciousness. Along this year, over a million migrants have dared the arduous crossing; meanwhile millions more wait their turn on the North African shores. In a desperate attempt to escape war-ravaged regions in Africa and the Middle East, and inspired by the hope of a better life in Europe, these migrants brave the perilous journey. To the gleeful smiles of human smugglers, they have boarded unseaworthy crafts bound for Europe: for many this would be the end of their journey, as boat by boat succumbed to the treachery of the seas. Meanwhile, those who survive the crossing are not greeted by the ‘better life’ they have imagined or been promised, but instead are transported by immigration police to barely liveable refugee camps across Europe where they await deportation (a small percentage of these are granted the right to remain). This is the reality of millions who seek to escape persecution and death in their homelands: if they survive the journey to Europe, are then faced with an equally inhumane situation.
European history has long been shaped and moulded by the migration of various communities and people, and though its internal and external borders have shifted over time, migratory trends and patterns have remained its constant characterising feature. For centuries, merchants, craftsmen and intellectuals have traversed the continent in order to trade goods and intellectual property, facilitating a culture of trade and exchange. Indeed, the free movement of goods and people is one of the principal tenants, underlying the treaties upon which the European Union is founded.
Emigration1 from Europe began on a large scale during the European colonial empires of the 18th and 19th Centuries as millions emigrated first to the colonies and later to the Americas and the Antipodes. Europe also has a long history of forced migration, from the expulsion of the Jews from Spain to the population shifts in south-east Europe caused by the many wars between the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. The shaping of the EU’s borders remains an on-going process as various countries are currently engaged in accession negotiations. The current trend, and the subject of this article, has seen the mass immigration (both legal and illegal) of people to Europe from politically and economically unstable regions in both Africa and the Middle East.
The geographical position of Mediterranean EU member states, as well as those on Europe’s eastern front has meant that they have become the focal point of illegal immigration as they represent major border crossing points for African and Middle-Eastern migrants fleeing political and/or socio-economic instability in their native countries. In April, this year the UN refugee agency UNHCR reported that so far in 2015 a total of 36,390 migrants have reached Italy, Greece and Malta by sea. In recent years, hundreds of thousands either have entered or attempt to enter Europe. Although these numbers have increased steeply in the past years, these should be understood in the context of historical European migratory trends.
In the last four years, a yearly average of 1.7 million people have emigrated to the EU (27 member state countries) from countries outside the EU. Whilst external border countries have been the initial entrance point, migrants have then continued inwards. Germany reported the largest number of immigrants (592,200) in 2012, followed by the United Kingdom (498,000), Italy (350,800), France (327,400) and Spain (304,100). Meanwhile, Spain reported the highest number of emigrants in 2012 (446,600), followed by the United Kingdom (321,200), France (288,300) and Poland (275,600). A total of 14 of the EU-27 Member States reported more immigration than emigration in 2012.
The undeniable truth of government policy is that it’s informed by numbers, and in no area is this more true than in immigration policies. Discussions around the topic seem locked in a numbers paradigm. Arguably, instead of devising new technologies to control, deter and curb the thousands of displaced people who brave the Mediterranean each week in search of hope, home and escape from regions bereft with social, political and economic hardships and challenges, European states should be concerned with the motivating factors behind said migrations. Point in case, undue focus has been placed on the smugglers themselves, who often load desperate migrants onto overcrowded and unseaworthy boats. Since the Arab Spring began a flood of human trafficking vessels have attempted to land on the tiny island of Lampedusa, lying just 70 miles north of the North African coast. The United Nations estimate more than 32,000 migrants journeyed to southern Italy in 2013 by using this area. Arguably, whilst the smugglers constitute the enabling agent, they are not the root cause of the problem. Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights observes that,
“far too many refugees and migrants are dying all across the world in an effort to flee conflict, systematic political oppression and human rights violations, including economic deprivation. These root causes in their countries of origin must be tackled in a concerted manner”.
All this to say nothing of the moral quality, which is seemingly lacking in Europe’s response to the current migratory trend and the human cost it is exacting. In this regard, the end-of-2014 decision to terminate Italy's search and rescue mission, called Mare Nostrum, has been heavily criticised. It was replaced by a cheaper and far more limited EU operation called Triton, whose mandate required it to undertake patrols only within 30 nautical miles of the Italian coast. Many aid organisations disapproved with the changes and warned there would be negative effects by scaling down the rescue effort, which would put more migrant lives at risk. The increased number of deaths that have occurred since the switchover has validated their warnings. This year alone, an estimated 1,800 people have died (and roughly, the same amount were listed as missing) by attempting to cross. The highly publicised sinking of migrant boats, the most recent of which saw the death of 750 passengers (by far the largest maritime disaster to occur in the Mediterranean) has underscored the human costs of Europe’s scaling down of its rescue missions. In the face of increasing death tolls, in April, EU leaders pledged to augment maritime patrols in the Mediterranean, disrupt people trafficking networks and capture and destroy boats before migrants board them. EU leaders have now agreed to triple funding for Triton, to some €120m (£86m) - taking it back to the spending levels of Italy’s Mare Nostrum program.
Discussions concerning the immigration crisis have been held in all of the EU member state parliaments, and the tone of these is indicative of the absence of morality and the tendency for alarmist rhetoric. Whilst those on the right of the political spectrum clamour for tighter immigration controls and reduced immigration quotas, arguing that current numbers are unsustainable, the relatively muted voice of the left grapples to highlight the inhumanity of both current and proposed policies. Zeid points out that those seeking escape from chaos and warfare, such as the huge numbers fleeing Syria, have the right to seek refuge. He also advocates a broad reaching re-think of the conditions that push so many thousands to undertake such risky voyages. What is certain is that the on-going humanitarian crisis that is being played out on the Mediterranean Sea is unprecedented in scope, and that it has severally impacted the political terrain across Europe as various political parties compete for electorally advantages position. As thousands die each month on the seas, EU governments must re-consider the to-date ineffectiveness of its approaches and solutions to remedy this ongoing crisis.
Faceless bodies: singular narratives and numbing numbers
The egregious inaction of Europe’s response to the crisis, which has seen thousands die in the Mediterranean, provokes the immediate question, if the victims of such tragedies were EU citizens, then would the response be the same? Zeid suggests that were that the case, then EU countries would “throw the full weight of their police forces and justice systems behind an investigation [and that] the reaction should not be any less rigorous just because the victims are foreigners and the crime took place on the high seas”. Certainly, the EU response would have been less lethargic had EU citizens been concerned. This point highlights the moral disparity and ensuing inaction that occurs when ‘us’ and ‘them’ is concerned.
The creation of the other is enabled by our dehumanisation of bodies that stems from a narrow and erroneous imagination of the other. The narrow elocution of the other is framed in an “us” and “them” framework, which takes place in the media and in our collective imagination. It is certainly not unique to the current situation; nonetheless, it is arguably a poignant case study. In Americanah, novelist Chimamanda Adichie addresses the danger in the proliferation of singular narratives of other people and countries, and explores how this can lead to critical misunderstandings. In this regard, the negative narrative of Africa and the Middle East and its people play a central role in the politics of immigration in Europe. The value of their lives is seemingly seen as subordinate to European lives - even as less than human.
In tandem with this phenomenon is the dehumanising effect of reducing death to numbers. Numerical representations of human lives do not necessarily convey the importance of those lives. All too often the numbers represent dry statistics, “human beings with the tears dried off”, that lack feeling and fail to motivate action (Slovic & Slovic, 2004). Arguably, the most important image to represent a human life is that of a single human face. Journalist Paul Neville discusses the need to probe beneath the statistics, in order to discover the people behind the numbers. He concludes: “I don't know when we became a nation of statistics. But I know that the path to becoming a nation - and a community - of people, is remembering the faces behind the numbers” (Neville, 2004).
The numbing effect that numbers have on feelings of empathy and sympathy are entirely relevant to how European views and approaches the current immigration crisis. Mother Teresa’s famous quote, “if I look at the mass I will never act. If I look at the one, I will”, is certainly poignant in this regard. How does the trauma caused by the death of one person we know intimately (or at the very least know of their personal story) compare to the death of millions of nameless bodies? Is one life truly equal to another? How do we feel when faced with the death of thousands of illegal aliens on the Mediterranean?
Debt, duty and responsibility
The electoral success of various anti-immigration political parties across Europe is testament to the concerns and negative sentiments towards immigration levels across Europe. David Cameron’s current stance towards immigration, as he seeks to re-negotiate Britain’s adherence to key EU migration treaties, is proof of a shift in the British political terrain - a shift that is indebted to the rise of the far-right UKIP party. This change has been mirrored across Europe, most notably in those states along the Mediterranean, as these expound upon the virtues of tightly knitted borders, warning that if the current immigration trend continues then European economies risk collapse: an over-sensationalisation of the problem that is no doubt aimed at garnering electoral favour. In this regard, the limited extent to which the general public2 is informed and influenced by historical perspectives is remarkable, as these remain stubbornly blind to historical events. Both the colonial and post-colonial eras had deep and long-lasting impacts on the African continent, the effects of which are still visible today. It should be pointed out that the various post-colonial governments in Africa and various Middle Eastern regions have not played a role in the current crisis, however these must be discussed against the backdrop of European - both historical and ongoing - interference in their social, political and economic destiny.
The undeniable truth is that Europe has reaped the benefits of the colonial enterprise, and that the consequence of which is the beleaguered and unstable situation various regions now find themselves. European states are indebted to the African continent, and as such, it is impressive how immigration policies and sentiments do not reflect said debt and the moral and economic duty of care it should provoke. The unspoken interplay between the issues of duty, debt and respectability are at the core of the immigration problem. The acknowledgement of duty, which is evoked by debt and responsibility, places both a moral and practical burden on European governments. Zeid claims that,
“it is the duty of states to investigate such atrocious crimes, bring the perpetrators to justice, and even more importantly to do more to prevent them from happening in the first place. All the countries in the Mediterranean must make a concerted effort to clamp down on the smugglers who are exploiting one of the most vulnerable groups on the planet and endangering their lives, virtually on a daily basis, purely for financial gain”.
That the economic debt owed and moral responsibility of European states is shunned in favour of silence and a myopic perspective of history is a truly horrendous incident. The truth and proof of the ongoing moral genocide that is occurring can be found in those bodies who lie locked in rickety steel coffins at the depths of the Mediterranean Sea.
The article has focused on three critical observations. The first is that the dehumanisation of bodies has been achieved by a synchronicity of processes, especially the singular narrative by which immigrants are presented and viewed as impersonal numbers. The second is that European prosperity is historically indebted to Africa, and that such a debt should not be excluded from the immigration debate. Thirdly, there is a moral duty and economic responsibility placed on European states to repair a flawed European immigration policy. In this regard the article has argued that Europe’s intentional moral myopia is encouraged by the knowledge and acknowledgement of the fact that said debt and suffering would impose a practical duty. Zeid notes the importance of bringing an “end [to] the prevailing impunity surrounding such crimes” and, though he was referring to the human smuggling crimes that are enabling the crisis, it is easy to apply his words to the moral crime perpetrated by European governments as they continuously avoid the problem by only offering temporary solutions at best.
Finally, the humanitarian crisis taking place in the Mediterranean is the abhorrent reality and consequence of a failed approach to immigration that is neither informed by charity, humanism or historical appreciation, but instead is provoked by the absence of morality and stirred by the politics of populism. The urgency of the crisis requires us to shun political populism in favour of more responsible and considerate approaches and, more than anything, it must be recognised as humanitarian crisis.
1 Migration can be categorised as either internal (those travelling between EU member states) or external (those crossing - either entering or exiting - external EU borders).
2 Whilst each member state country has its individual immigration policy stance, it would be fare to say that the general sentiment is aimed at curbing current immigration numbers. According to various studies and surveys this sentiment is mirrored in the general public.