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Why migrants die

European countries are as much to blame for the death of migrants as human traffickers.

Last Modified: 06 Nov 2013 04:48
Belen Fernandez

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.
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"The unilateral condemnation of Europe-bound human movement also conveniently overlooks the legacy of colonialism, imperialism, and attendant discord and economic oppression in determining migration patterns," writes Belen Fernandez [EPA]

In 2001, a Palestinian friend of mine attempted to go to Europe.

Holding only a travel document for Palestinian refugees in Lebanon - one of the more useless bundles of paper currently in existence - he appealed to a Turkish mafia ring in Istanbul, and was promised passage to Greece in exchange for $1,000. 

Thus began an odyssey of sorts in which my friend was packed onto a series of overcrowded boats. The first broke down off the coast of Turkey, the second sank, and the third deposited its human cargo in the vicinity of the Turkish city of Izmir, which the migrants were told was Greece.

After various encounters with Turkish law enforcement, my friend returned by bus to Lebanon, where Palestinians are denied civil rights and barred from a lengthy list of professions as well as from property ownership.

Many migrants are, of course, even less fortunate, as is evidenced by the recent barrage of news headlines about shipwrecks and drowned passengers.

In October, for example, over 300 people died when their ship capsized off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa.

According to the New York Times, the International Organisation for Migration has calculated that "roughly 25,000 people have died in the Mediterranean in the last 20 years, including 1,700 last year". 

An October 3 article in the Guardian characterised the on-going boat disasters as "a litany of largely avoidable loss".

[I]t is unacceptable that sometimes in certain parts of Milan there is such a presence of non-Italians that instead of thinking you are in an Italian or European city, you think you are in an African city.

- Former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi

A 'war on immigration'

The New York Times notes: "European Commission officials expressed sadness about the [Lampedusa] accident and blamed criminal syndicates and human smugglers for exploiting desperate people. They called for a crackdown on the smugglers while saying that Europe also needs to step up dialogue with the countries from which migrants originate."

The essential reduction of the issue to one of criminal malevolence, however, ignores the fact that gangs merit merely a secondary level of blame.

The identity of primary guilty parties is hinted at in the Guardian's reference to its "exposé of the 'left-to-die' boat in 2011, in which 61 migrants were left toslowly perish  at sea, despite distress calls being sounded and their vessel's position being made known to European authorities and NATO ships".

European culpability in the demise of migrants is structural, resulting as it does from a mad "war on immigration". This war is depicted on the Le Monde Diplomatique website in a compilation of infographics and maps illustrating the importance accorded to border fortification over human life - particularly human life that is "fleeing civil war, conflict and devastating poverty". (As is noted, fortification is not required against the "fat wallets" of the West.)

Regarding the "enforcement posture adopted by both European nations and the continent's supranational agencies", the Guardian quotes Human Rights Watch researcher Judith Sunderland: "'What we really don't see is a presumption of saving lives; what we get instead is every effort to shut down borders, said Sunderland, who pointed out that security crackdowns on land crossings such as the Greece-Turkey border only displaced migrant flows and often forced more boats into the sea."

Of course, were the selectively hostile fortification of borders not a European priority, the value of the service offered by migrant traffickers would plummet along with their ability to detrimentally affect individual fates.

Africanisation of Europe?

Disturbingly, many Europeans view themselves as the real victims of the migration process, egged on in this perception by the xenophobic rhetoric of prominent politicians.

Italy's recurring affliction, Silvio Berlusconi, for example, once complained[It] that, "[I]t is unacceptable that sometimes in certain parts of Milan there is such a presence of non-Italians that instead of thinking you are in an Italian or European city, you think you are in an African city." 

As if any doubts remained as to his stance on the matter, the then-Prime Minister confirmed: "Some people want a multicolored and multiethnic society. We do not share this opinion." 

After 227 migrants, apprehended off the coast of Malta in 2009, were transported back to their port of embarkation in Libya by vessels belonging to the Italian state, Berlusconi assured observers[It] that, "There is practically no one on these boats that qualifies for asylum."

Post-Berlusconi regimes, it seems, haven't lost the capacity for telepathic analysis of asylum qualifications. The Guardian summarises a similar move - categorisable, perhaps, as offensive defence - executed this year: "In August the Italian authorities ordered two commercial ships to rescue a migrant boat in the sea and then demanded the ship's captains transport the migrants back to Libya, a move that experts believe could discourage commercial captains from attempting rescues at all and may be in breach of international law."

Obviously, North American capital has yet to acknowledge its ethical obligations, while the governing apparatus with which it is entwined prefers to throw yet more capital at ineffective but symbolic fortress emulations, racial profiling, and the selective criminalisation of migration.

Meanwhile, as if the partial Africanisation of Milan were not enough, further aesthetic destruction is occurring elsewhere in Europe. Marine Le Pen, president of the French far-right National Front party, has detected similarities between Muslim street prayers and the Nazi occupation of France. 

Le Pen claims that, "[N]o country in the world ... would accept to go through the fast and sizeable immigration of people who, without a doubt, have a different religion and culture." 

As I pointed out in a previous Al Jazeera op-ed, it seems that many places in the world have, in fact, already experienced this - including former French colonial possessions subjected to military invasion, widespread killing, torture, and expropriation of resources. To the uninitiated eye, such phenomena might appear slightly more nefarious than praying in the street or trying to eke out a living.

The unilateral condemnation of Europe-bound human movement also conveniently overlooks the legacy of colonialism, imperialism, and attendant discord and economic oppression in determining migration patterns.

Eliminating borders

In a March 2013 Jacobin magazine essay titled "The Case for Open Borders", J A Myerson discusses the reality of globalisation: "Multinational free trade agreements, supranational financial institutions, and transnational corporations ensure that capital can float between nations with all the ease of a monarch butterfly. Labour, on the other hand, remains under the jurisdiction of border-obsessed states."

Arguing that "[t]he emphasis on 'strengthening the border' should be tempered by an understanding of the political and economic decisions that have altered that border's characteristics", Myerson focuses on another global entity known for wildly erecting anti-migrant barricades: the US, where immigration was given a considerable boost by NAFTA's destruction of - among other things - the livelihoods of over a million farm workers in Mexico. 

Myerson reasons: "When post-national North American capital created the conditions that made mass migration inevitable, it entered into an ethical contract with the migrant victims of its wealth accumulation scheme."

Obviously, North American capital has yet to acknowledge its ethical obligations, while the governing apparatus with which it is entwined prefers to throw yet more capital at ineffective but symbolic fortress emulations, racial profiling, and the selective criminalisation of migration.

According to Myerson, the establishment of "universal human rights" requires "globalising labour" and "eliminating borders", which merely convey arbitrary rights.

Among the many "problems with defining rights with respect to the nation-state", he notes, is the fact that "most people consider rights more eternal than laws, which are merely expressions of momentary social attitudes. Wouldn't we say that enslaved black Americans had a right to freedom even before legal emancipation?"

As Europe strives to determine new ways to restrict the fundamental rights of migrants via law enforcement, it's useful to rethink the words of Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, who on the occasion of the October shipwreck off Lampedusa announced: "Europe must realise it is not an Italian drama but a European one … Lampedusa must become the border of Europe, not Italy."

Better yet would be to stop confining the discourse to such borders, and to realise it's not a European drama but a human one.

Belen Fernandez is the author of The Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work, published by Verso. She is a contributing editor at Jacobin Magazine.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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