Last week, near the island of Lampedusa, off the Sicilian coast, over 300 migrants, mainly Somali, drowned while attempting to cross what has de facto become Europe’s frontier, the point of entry into a continent rather than into a country. The previous weeks, a world away from Sicily, off Australia’s shores, another boat carrying asylum seekers sunk killing scores of migrants. In what has become a tragic, regular occurrence during the last years, thousands of people have died at sea in desperate bids to leave their home countries.
While messages of sympathy for the deceased abound across the board, where policy is concerned, both Europe and Australia remain uncompromising, determined to curb the influx of asylum seekers and immigrants at any cost. One wonders how many people have yet to die before decision-makers acknowledge that there is something profoundly wrong in the way the West understands and responds to migration movements.
With all the attention focused on policy solutions on how to deter migrants, little attention is paid to the dynamics governing people’s decision to migrate, let alone the circumstances at the place of origin that shape individual realities and choices. Hostage of a black and white picture defining contemporary migration as a matter either of an economic or of a forced nature, the West has de facto, created categories of ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ people. For low-skilled, poor individuals, the chances to be given asylum are nill, or very low, at best. Fleeing a war zone or an impoverished place does not entail the right to be given protection, as the case of Syrian refugees who were denied entry in the UK a few days ago, clearly demonstrates.
At the same time, Western governments regularly spend thousands of dollars on dubious campaigns aimed at dissuading people from leaving their countries. The UK, one of the countries most affected by moral panic over a supposed ‘flood of immigrants’, has attracted wide criticism both from activists and from the general public over the ‘Go home or face arrest’ campaign directed at undocumented migrants.
Meanwhile, a few weeks ago, Australia funded, with the IOM, a $500,000 campaign, producing a video aimed at Afghan and Pakistani nationals attempting to reach its shores. The video warns potential asylum seekers planning to embark on a journey by boat that detention is what they should expect, whether they are women, children or men. Interestingly, the video depicts Hazara people, the same people who in Pakistan are regularly persecuted by extremist, sectarian outfits for being both from a different ethnic group and for being Shia. It is difficult to fathom how such an advert could impact on the decision-making of an individual living with a daily fear of being killed: the risk of dying at sea or being detained is less than that of dying at home.
Western governments might also be mistaken when they focus their attention disproportionately on smuggling rings, since it is proven that for every route neutralised by the authorities and for every smuggler taken out, a new one materialises in near to no time. Enough evidence on smugglers’ networks and cross-border routes shows that they are both extremely adaptable to changing circumstances. Meanwhile, it should also be noted that the criminalisation of smugglers often adds a further layer of risk for boat migrants. For example, while the most recent tragedy was unfolding off Lampedusa, several fishing boats abandoned people to their destiny for fear of being caught by the Italian police and persecuted for favouring ‘illegal migration’. Although smugglers do expose people to risks, Sigona, a scholar and an expert on irregular migration, says that attention should not be diverted from the fact that people are forced to take such risky journeys in the absence of legal routes available to low-skilled migrants wanting to reach Europe.
Unfortunately, a change of approach towards undocumented migrants does not seem to be anywhere in sight. Quite to the contrary, fortress Europe on the one hand and Australia on the other, are adopting increasingly restrictive policies and are resorting to arguably excessive means every day. Protecting borders from unwanted people has become such a major anxiety that the newly-elected Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has put in place ‘Sovereign borders’, a military-led operation under the command of a three-star general.
Europe, on the other hand, seems still far from devising an immigration policy capable of protecting migrants’ rights while at the same time, satisfying its obsession with lowering the numbers of arrivals. The Dublin Convention, the principal legal tool adopted in Europe and first implemented in the ’90s, requires undocumented people to lodge their application at the port of entry, forbidding them to travel to a country of their choice. The underlying political dimension of the Convention was that, easing the pressure on the countries with the largest refugee and immigrant communities, namely northern European countries, would entail shifting the burden to peripheral states, like Italy, for example. Ultimately, we are dealing with Europe’s frustrated ambition to behave like a single (state) entity, rather than as a collection of nation states implementing disparate policies. However, southern European members, already under pressure because of political instability and a failing economy, have been unable and unwilling to absorb such a large influx of people, which in Italy alone reached 30,000 between January and September 2013. Europe cannot manage any more to protect its fortress at such a high price, in terms of human cost. Exclusionary immigration policies and those aimed at combating illegal migration, are eventually bound to fail, since they are among the very causes of the phenomenon they claim to fight, co-director of the International Migration Institute in Oxford, Hein de Haas, says.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 12th, 2013.