The British and other EU governments response to the boatloads of refugees trying to make it across the Mediterranean was driven by a warped logic. Tory minister Baroness Anelay’s claimed last year that supporting search and rescue missions for sinking vessels was a “‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing”, convinced others in the European Union. Sure enough, when they stopped trying to save drowning people, they drowned. Leaving poor people to die on its shores in the hope it will discourage more poor people from coming hardly qualifies as humanitarian ideals.
The reason the Tories thought they could get away with pushing such a heinous and callous plan is because they felt there would be no electoral price to pay for beating up on foreigners. Labour, with its “Controls on immigration” mug, has wilfully contributed to a political culture whereby immigration is understood not as an enriching opportunity but a sickness of which migrants are the most obvious symptom. Generally speaking, the opposition has not challenged the prevailing misconceptions but pandered to them. The fundamental issue is not what is pulling migrants but what pushes them. By the time they have boarded these rickety vessels they have often paid thousands of dollars to be led through the desert. People don’t make that kind of journey so they can come to the west and draw state-benefits. Their aim is not to capsize and be rescued but to get to the other shore.
Throughout Europe, xenophobic and racist parties shape the agenda, preying on people’s ignorance and fear. According to opinion polls, Britons and Spaniards believe they have twice as many immigrants in their country as there actually are; in Italy, Belgium and France it’s closer to three times; in Hungary it’s eight times; in Poland, more than 30. No wonder they’re frightened. The politics of xenophobia can be summed up into a single sentence. “They’re coming here to get what’s yours.” This is, of course, a lie.
A return to search and rescue missions and more funding for patrols – will save more lives in the short term. But such a plan is also clearly inadequate for anything other than the shortest of terms. It seeks not to cure the problem but to placate the consciences of those who have been most culpable.
No substantial immigration policy is possible that does not engage with the reality of capitalism. 3 billion people live on less than $2.50 a day. The global 99% did not come about by accident. It’s the result of centuries of colonization and imperialism plus the current corruption that has allowed a handful of people, in different ways at different times, to steal natural resources and pilfer from the world’s common treasury. Inequalities have been reinforced by a global trade system that operates according to the golden rule – that those who have the gold make the rules. Put bluntly, Europe is rich (even if those riches are most definitely not evenly divided) in no small part because other nations are poor.
On top of that, a large number of these people are displaced by wars. The top three nations from which maritime refugees to the EU come are Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea. The country where they are most likely to start their journey is Libya, which is now effectively a failed state. In other words, many are running for their lives through countries NATO have bombed. Those politicians in the west who insist we cannot take in “the world’s misery” should acknowledge how much of that misery they are responsible for. Many are fleeing to here because European governments insisted on sending troops and bomber planes there. The U.S.-backed bombing campaign that helped bring down Moammar Kadafi in 2011 also destroyed Libyan coast guard and naval vessels deployed during Kadafi's rule to intercept illicit migrant traffic. Libya's previous cooperation with Italy on immigration matters has gone by the wayside since Libya's subsequent descent into chaos.
The migrant crisis is exacerbated by climate change. Climate change is affecting such basic environmental conditions as rainfall patterns and temperatures and is contributing to more frequent natural disasters like floods and droughts. Over the long term, these changing conditions can undermine the rural livelihoods of farming, herding and fishing. The resulting rural dislocation is a factor in people’s decisions to migrate. Nobody argues that climate change is the only factor driving them. But climate change cannot be ignored. The second-order effects of climate change — undermined agriculture and competition for water and food resources — can contribute to instability and to higher numbers of migrants. Underlying climate and demographic trends can squeeze the margins of life at the family and community levels, contribute to decisions to migrate, heighten conflicts over basic resources and threaten state structures and regional stability. In northwest Africa, climate change will exacerbate difficulties in areas already facing numerous environmental and developmental challenges. Overall, up to 250 million people in Africa are projected to suffer from water and food insecurity in the 21st century. In the Sahel region, three-quarters of rain-fed arable land will be greatly affected by climate change. Droughts and flooding are already more frequent in Niger and northern Nigeria, along with temperature rises that jeopardize crucial rural activities. The Niger River faces diminishing flows of roughly 10%, which numerous new dam projects will only worsen. If current water consumption trends continue, withdrawals from the Niger basin will increase six-fold by 2025, with profound implications for Nigeria. Lake Chad, which supports 25m people, is drying up and is one-20th of its size in 1960. Northern Algeria, home to most of the country’s population and agriculture, may see rainfall reductions of 10% to 20% by 2025. Rainfall in Morocco is expected to decrease by 20% by the end of the century. North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa are tied together by longstanding and well-established migratory routes. As early as 2011, research indicated that about 65,000 migrants passed through Agadez, Niger, on their way north to Algeria, Morocco and Europe each year. As climate change takes a toll on farming, herding and fishing, undermining livelihoods and contributing to decisions to migrate, these numbers could grow larger. Nigeria is losing more than 1,350 square miles of land to desertification each year, a pace that may increase with climate change. With 70% of Nigeria’s population reliant on agriculture for its livelihood, and 90% of Niger’s workforce reliant on rain-fed agriculture, desertification represents a fundamental threat to rural life. These are not the abstract complaints of climate scientists. In Niger, frequent droughts have impoverished many and contributed to migration. When faced with deteriorating conditions, humans have long turned to migration; it is a basic adaptive mechanism.
Any effort to address the migrant tragedy playing out in the Mediterranean must address and incorporate these deeper-root causes. Though the warning signs have long been evident, policymakers still tend to focus on the symptoms rather than the causes.
Many of the smugglers are themselves immigrants who first arrived in Europe via the clandestine passage. Some have since won political asylum in Italy or elsewhere, authorities say. Though widely demonized as ruthless villains, the smugglers seem to view themselves as pragmatic businessmen providing an essential service, the Italian wiretaps indicate. "We do a dirty job; we can't help everyone," said one smuggler. "They want to leave and we make it possible."
The countries bearing the heaviest challenges with refugees are poor, developing world nations such as Pakistan, Lebanon and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And xenophobia is not a preserve of wealthy, white nations. South Africa is still recovering from an outbreak of anti-immigrant violence that left many dead last week.
If you build a 10ft fence to keep out people who are hungry, they will build an 11ft ladder to climb over it. If you weaponise a fortress to repel people who fear hunger or war, they will seek ever more desperate ways to penetrate it. They have no choice. They are fighting for their lives. And we socialists support them. We said in an earlier blog post – it all stems from an economic system in which borders are wide open for capital yet close firmly to people.