My social media feeds are filled with dead children. Small bodies, washing up on the shores of a Mediterranean beach.
Why are they washing up on the shores? European governments want us to blame traffickers. The advantage of blaming traffickers is that it actually licenses those governments to implement even more repressive measures. But traffickers are only out to make a quick buck off the system that European governments have created.
It is incredibly difficult to get into “Fortress Europe” as a refugee. Apart from all the legal obstacles, according to the European Council of Refugees and Exiles, even refugees face a policy of “illegal pushback,” wherein Greek government forces illegitimately use violence and threats to prevent those seeking asylum — many coming from Syria via Turkey — from entering the European Union.
If they go through Bulgaria, they are locked up in prison “camps.” They live on miserly rations of food, in what Amnesty International calls cruel and inhumane conditions, and live in fear of racist attacks. If they try to cross from Morocco to Spain, or from Libya to Italy, they risk sinking to their deaths in the middle of the Mediterranean.
And this is the context in which there is an emergency at sea. As the International Organisation of Migration points out, there has been a drastic ramping up of border controls, particularly maritime border controls in Europe, particularly in the form of Operation Triton — a repressive counter-migration measure often misleadingly described as a search and rescue operation.
This partly explains why the rate of deaths is drastically increasing in the Mediterranean, while decreasing in other parts of the world. Denied other means to travel, denied legal entry as refugees, migrants take the boat. And it’s a rickety boat, sailing in precarious conditions, under circumstances of terrifying surveillance.
As Al Jazeera reported last year, the number of deaths in the Mediterranean sea is rising — over three thousand in the first nine months of 2014, the worst figure since the beginning of the century, adding to the total of forty thousand who CNN said have died like this across the world since 2000. A humanitarian catastrophe.
Most of the bodies don’t wash up on the shore. Most of them are never recovered; the ones that are usually don’t have documents. No one knows who they are, or even what sex they are in most cases.
At long last, there is a backlash. People may get swept up in racist propaganda, but nobody likes to think of themselves as so brutally inhumane that they’d let cheerfully let children drown at sea. The European governments are being shamed into accepting some refugees, although the British government remains intransigent. The Financial Times reports:
During the negotiations on relocating 40,000 refugees earlier this summer, one EU diplomat said British officials joked that they would take zero people “and double that if they were really pushed.”
But it’s important to say that these refugees only constitute a small minority of the immigrants within and coming to the European Union. The success of anti-immigrant racism depends on us accepting the idea that Europe “can’t take” so many migrants. But the fact is that most immigrants to Europe arrive by air, with work visas. When you see statistics claiming a large number of “illegal immigrants,” the majority of that is migrants whose visa ran out while they were at their work placement.
Thus, it is not that Europe “can’t take” the number of immigrants that arrive, which consideration can only be temporarily set aside in emergencies. It is that European economies need, and depend upon the immigrants that arrive. The determination of the European Union to maintain a “fortress” has nothing to do with the supposed material burden that refugees place upon those states, and far more to do with the political management of the labor force.
But in setting up non-nationals as parasites, as a burden, as usurpers of national resources, and so on, European governments and their loyal media are generating a dangerous political fantasy.
Ultimately, if the migrants coming to Europe are a problem, then the ones who are already there (first, second, or third generation, depending on how one is racially coded) must also be a problem. No matter that they have citizenship, the mere fact that we put up with such a burden, according to this logic, is a sign of “our” benevolence, generosity, and tolerance.
But that can only be pushed so far, and in moments of crisis, when the economy is depressed, when newspapers tell us that Europe is being driven to the brink of civil war by immigration, when cultural diversity is no longer a bland multicultural shibboleth but actually fighting talk . . . well, if “they” are a problem, wouldn’t it be nice if we could somehow, not have to live with “them” any more? That’s the fantasy which ultimately grounds support for Farageism, Trumpism, or at worst Marine Le Pen and Golden Dawn.
And that is also the limitation of humanitarianism in this situation. As I see it, it is not that despite all the racism and xenophobia some baseline, fundamental human sympathy has kicked in.
Rather, what we are witnessing playing out is what in good old-fashioned Marxist terminology might be called the contradictions of the dominant ideology. The liberal-humanitarian element of European ideology has come into stark and obvious conflict with the nationalist and racist elements.
And it is good that the liberal-humanitarian reflex is prevailing for now. That does give antiracists breathing space and an angle from which to attack the fortress: for now, the slogan “Refugees are welcome here” has a clear resonance. But it doesn’t in itself affect the underlying ideological coordinates according to which immigrants are a burden, and a menace, and a problem population to be controlled.
We shouldn’t expect the momentary shock of devastation and disaster to do our political work for us.