EUROPE’S RIO GRANDE
In 1990 BBC TV broadcast a film entitled “ The March”. It recounted a fictional march on Western Europe by thousands of poor African migrants led by a charismatic figure from Sudan, El Mahdi. The tone was set from the outset when a senior European politician asked him what Europe could do to help: “You could come and live here; I could go and live in your house.” The slogan of the marchers was simple “ We are poor because you are rich.” In the film, which can be viewed on You Tube, what starts out as a trickle becomes a flood of humanity heading for Europe, with, at the end, quarter of a million gathering opposite Gibraltar preparing to cross.
Fiction? Fanciful? A generation later, there are currently estimated to be half a million people waiting in Libya, poised to embark for Italy, Malta and the EU. The Mediterranean – the northern shores at least – is one of Europe’s favourite playgrounds, from the haunts of the rich around Monte Carlo and the French Riviera, to the mass tourist destinations of Spain and Greece. Yet the Mediterranean is also the border between First World Europe and Third World Africa, and like the Rio Grande, it has become the route of entry for illegal migrants. It has also, increasingly, become a graveyard for those who don’t make it.
With per capita income in Southern Europe six times that in Morocco or Tunisia, and up to fifteen times higher than in Sub-Saharan Africa, the attraction of Europe is obvious ( the corresponding ratio for the USA and Mexico is four to one). The poverty, the misery these people are seeking to leave behind hasn’t changed since. Population pressure has compounded matters while new sources of conflict have made some situations worse and added more reasons for more people from more countries to try to get to Europe. There are several million alone displaced from Syria and Iraq on Europe’s threshold.
Some things HAVE changed. A crackdown by Spain has seen the numbers attempting to enter drop dramatically from the peak of 17,000 in 2000, though considerable numbers continue to make the longer voyage to the Canary Islands . The main focus for African migrants, and the people traffickers who transport them, has become Italy and its islands adjacent to the Libyan coast. A steady stream of migrants had been crossing from Libya for several decades, something Gaddafi cleverly exploited for his own ends, being able and ruthless enough to turn the flow on and off to extract concessions from Europe, threatening otherwise to flood the EU with millions of migrants.
With Gaddafi’s overthrow, and the near anarchy that has engulfed Libya since, the stream of refugees has become a torrent. The scale is now staggering . 170,000 refugees are estimated to have landed in Italy alone in 2014, 140,000 from Libya, and already this year over 40,000 have arrived during the winter months, when the sea is particularly inhospitable. With 500,000 waiting for boats these numbers are expected to increase sharply during the summer months. Italian sources estimate that up to 200,000 immigrants might arrive in2015. (As I write, four thousand were landed over the second weekend in May.)
It’s a lucrative business. The boats are supplied by traffickers who charge up to $1,000 per passenger. They are often old, unsafe vessels, sometimes only dinghies, overcrowded and without facilities. Many carry several hundred, which works out at very big bucks. The voyages can be perilous, up to 100 miles (Lampedusa, the nearest Italian island, is 70 miles from the African shore), with the optimum expectation, at the end, of being rescued by the Italian navy and transported to holding centres in Sicily and an uncertain future in a continent that shows little signs of welcome.
Until recently, this silent migration, with accidents, shipwrecks and deaths commonplace, passed largely unheeded outside Italy and Malta beyond brief news reports and media comments . Over 3000 are estimated to have drowned in 2014. In 2014 Italy actually mounted a special naval rescue operation in response to the rising toll of drownings, while diplomatically the Italian government appealed to its EU partners for more burden sharing – current internal EU agreements stipulate that migrants remain the responsibility of the first country receiving them.
There was little response. Immigration, particularly of poor economic migrants from different cultures, is a sensitive political issue throughout Europe, with considerable support for anti-immigration parties in a number of countries. Those countries willing to admit more asylum seekers – Germany and Sweden – concentrated on refugees from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq, and even here the numbers admitted merely scratched the surface. The African problem was seen as primarily an Italian one, though, with unrestricted movement among Schengen countries ( the EU except Britain and Ireland) there are obvious implications for all.
Then events last April catapulted the issue onto Europe’s front pages and prompted an emergency summit of Europe’s leaders. A boat capsized, within sight of rescuers, drowning 800. The death toll for 2015 was reported to have already topped 1,600 – more than the Titanic, as one aid worker commented. 10,000 were picked up from other boats in the same week. There was public outcry and outrage, with lobbyists calling the tragedy a stain on Europe’s conscience.
The emergency summit on April 23, together with subsequent Ministerial meetings, agreed on some measures to address the problem but there is little likelihood that they will produce significant results. Funding to combat traffickers and to enhance the EU’s existing “Triton” search and rescue mission was tripled, allowing increased naval patrolling (Ireland is among those sending a ship to participate), the use of force against traffickers was mooted (but how, where and with what authority ?) and discussions on sharing out some of those rescued and admitting more refugees generally have begun. More fanciful and unworkable ideas – establishing “transit camps” in North Africa for would-be migrants, allowing temporary stays in Europe, followed by repatriation – have been floated.
The issue has exposed deep flaws in the EU’s policy, such as it is, on asylum and refugees, with countries like Britain flatly refusing to take any more refugees and others baulking at taking large numbers. To absorb 500,000 would mean a distribution of one tenth of one per cent of Europe’s population among twenty eight countries. The chances of this happening are remote.
But something else has changed also since 1990. In “The March” a European official comments that Africans too have televisions and asks for how long the world’s poor will be willing to put up with their situation. Today the poor have the Internet, mobile phones and global communications. Europe and the rich North have been brought closer to the poor South. They can see how well the rich minority on the planet live and they want some of it. The Arab Spring was one manifestation of this. Perhaps in a perverted sense Islamic State is also. Most assuredly the multitudes waiting to take a risky boat journey for the chance of a better life is as well, whether in the Mediterranean or East Asia. And they’re not going away anytime soon.