Every day people launch themselves in rickety boats into the Mediterranean, hoping to navigate the perilous passage to Europe – hundreds drowning in the attempt. In the last weekend of May alone, European naval and merchant ships rescued more than 5,000 migrants after boats issued a distress call, according the European Union border control agency, Frontex. The death toll is on the rise. At least 1, 770 people have died so far this year. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) warns that the migrant death toll could reach 30,000 in 2015.
Others die in the sea off Southeast Asia, hoping to get to Australia, or any country other than the one they left. Meanwhile, hundreds die every year crossing the desert through northern Mexico into the United States. Some perish from thirst and exposure, some fall from railroad cars heading for the border, while dozens more are murdered simply because they’re vulnerable migrants.
Over the last two months, the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean has captured the global spotlight. But so far the EU response has focused on enforcement and a crackdown on traffickers. Recently some European political leaders proposed using their navies to stop boats carrying migrants, returning the refuge-seekers to their points of origin, mostly in Libya, and then sinking the craft. This enforcement-based approach not only ignores the primary drives of migration but also jeopardizes millions of people who are seeking refuge from repressive regimes.
The governments of wealthy countries all use heavy enforcement against migrants as a supposed deterrent to migration. Australia’s navy seizes boats on the high seas, and tows them to the isolated island nation of Nauru. There it pays a private contractor $1.2 billion to keep migrants in a detention center. The U.S. continues building privately-run detention centers. The latest, the South Texas Detention Center, already holds 2400 mothers and children from Central America.
International law guarantees the right to seek asylum. Seizing boats and mass detentions are violations of this basic right, and endanger migrants themselves. EU rules and standards require identifying migrants and hosting them in adequate conditions. Asylum seekers’ cases must be assessed on an individual basis in the first country in which they arrive. They must be allowed to reunite with family members who are already living in EU countries.
A week ago the EU called on member states to absorb 40,000 Syrian and Eritrean migrants over the next two years. That figure grossly underestimates the number of asylum-seekers and limits who can apply for asylum. More than 600,000 migrants arrived in the EU last year. At least 80,000 have applied for asylum in Europe since January.
Asylum is given to people fleeing persecution, while people fleeing poverty are considered economic migrants. Yet people often are fleeing both simultaneously, and the causes of war, repression and poverty are intertwined. European and U.S. political leaders, however, point their fingers at traffickers, holding them responsible for the wave of death. French President Francois Hollande urged a “tougher fight against traffickers,” while Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called them “the slave drivers of the 21st century.” President Obama castigated smugglers who, he said, encourage mothers to send their children from Central America.
This focus on traffickers helps political leaders avoid shouldering responsibility for the conditions that drive migrants from their homes and make migration a necessity for survival. Further, demonizing traffickers has become a tool of foreign policy. The U.S. rates countries on their efforts to stop trafficking, and allies like the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany and the Netherlands score at the top, despite widespread economic exploitation and attacks on immigrants. U.S. enemies, from Iran to North Korea, with relatively smaller roles in world migration, conveniently rate at the bottom.
In reality, modern migration is blowback from centuries of colonialism, followed by a deepening gulf between the rich and poor countries of the world. Sergio Sosa, a Guatemalan immigrant living in Nebraska, says, “People from Europe and the U.S. crossed borders to come to us, and took over our land and economy. Now it’s our turn to cross borders. Migration is a form of fighting back. People have to resist — to keep their communities and identities alive. We are demonstrating that we are human beings too.”
European colonies in Africa, the Mideast and Asia transferred enormous wealth to Europe. They created a huge economic divide that formal independence for the colonies never overcame. The oil of Nigeria still goes to Europe, pumped by European corporations, while Nigerian migrants sell knockoff purses on the sidewalks in Rome and London. The mines of Zambia are owned by foreign corporations, to whom their revenues flow. Large EU and US investment groups buy tracts of land in Africa for industrial export agriculture, displacing the communities living there.
Former colonies go into debt to finance development, start paying interest to foreign banks, and then must implement austerity policies at the demand of institutions like the International Monetary Fund that lower the local standard of living. Military aid agreements buttress governments that protect these investments, which can lead to repression and direct intervention.
While the EU countries contribute money towards development projects, they are oriented towards creation of infrastructure for Europeans corporations. Developing countries must open their markets to European imports, destroying local industry and agriculture that cannot compete. Even Kenya, a generally pro-EU country, in 2014 refused to sign the Economic Partnership Agreement between the EU and east African states, and was then punished by the imposition of high tariffs on its exports to Europe. Eventually its government surrendered and signed. This agreement includes some of the countries sending migrants to Europe, such as Rwanda, Uganda and Burundi.
According to Andrew Mold, the UN’s economic analyst for east Africa, “The African countries cannot compete with an economy like Germany’s. As a result, free trade and EU imports endanger existing industries, and future industries do not even materialize because they are exposed to competition from the EU.”
According to Tefere Gebre, an Ethiopian immigrant now executive vice-president of the AFL-CIO, the cause of the migration of mothers and children from Honduras is “the intersection of our corporate-dominated trade policies with our broken immigration system.” A long history of U.S. military intervention in Central America, he says, produced the violence people are now fleeing.
Our supposedly post-colonial world has been unable to erase the gross inequality of nations that was colonialism’s product. Most of the wars of our era, each with its specific cause, have roots in this history, as people try to achieve a more just social order, only to see their efforts met with violence and repression. Poverty, and the wars that result from it, are the forces that displace people, making migration their only option. And the imposition of austerity programs and corporate-dominated trade pacts only increases economic polarization, bringing with them even more displacement.
There is no military way to stop this migration. Sinking boats from North Africa will no more halt the flow of people than building detention centers or walls on the Mexico/U.S. border. European bombing and military intervention in Libya, aided by the U.S., actually produced the social chaos in which the people-smugglers now prosper.
Instead of using navies to stop and sink the boats, Laura Boldrini, president of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies, and former spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, suggests that the UNHCR could set up offices in North Africa where people can apply for asylum. At the same time, she says, the flow of people can be organized and asylum seekers distributed more fairly among European countries. In 2013 Germany processed 200,000 claims and Italy 64,000, while Finland processed 3,600 and the Czech Republic 1,000. ‘The European Union is founded on solidarity among member states,” Boldrini emphasizes, “and distributing asylum seekers more fairly is a principle which should be upheld – provided that all countries comply with EU rules and standards.”
The disparity between the number of people arriving and the number given asylum basically means that huge numbers of migrants have no legal status at all. That, in turn, is used to justify laws that treat the lack of legal immigration status as a criminal offense. Undocumented status became a crime in Italy in 2002 under its Bossi-Fini law, and other Europeans countries have passed similar legislation.
Since the fall of the Berlusconi government and the conservative Northern League, leftwing Italian political parties have called for the law’s repeal. Migration is not a criminal act and shouldn’t be punished in Europe or on the high seas as though it was. In the U.S., while lack of legal status is still theoretically a minor infraction, over 440,000 people spent some time in an immigration detention center in 2013, and some migrants have been imprisoned for years.
In Europe and the U.S. the call for more enforcement and more exclusion finds support among some voters who fear losing jobs and income because of the impact of austerity policies. Voices on the left, therefore, link decriminalizing migration to overturning those policies and reversing economic polarization.
Boldrini argues against increasing the enforcement regime in the Mediterranean. “I believe it is both difficult to implement and very risky,” she explains, “because military interventions can cause additional problems rather then solving them.” Boldrini does urge action against smugglers, such as tracing their revenues and cutting them off. But since people are crossing in small fishing boats and other craft, “how can you tell whether a boat could potentially be used to smuggle people across the Mediterranean?” she asks. “And where will the rescued migrants be taken? The EU is bound by international refugee law and cannot return potential refugees to North African countries, where they could face persecution or be sent back to their countries of origin.”
Ending forced migration requires changing the way EU countries deal with their former colonies and other developing nations. Europe can take basic steps to give people a future in their home countries. This includes ending military intervention, overturning austerity policies and ending trade and investment pacts that lead to economic polarization. These measures could help people to achieve the right to stay home, to make migration a voluntary choice, rather than an act forced by the need to survive.
Boldrini also advocates interim steps that can help save the lives of migrants in the short term, and guarantee their right to seek refuge from a world in which the right to stay home is still a dream. Her proposal to prescreen migrants before they leave the coast of North Africa by itself could save thousands of lives. Ensuring that EU countries share more equitably the people seeking asylum will reduce the hostility migrants face in their host countries, a benefit both to them and to their surrounding communities.
“We should intervene on the causes of migration if we want to stop people from leaving,” Boldrini says. “At the same time, we need to respect the human rights of migrants.” Ultimately, she argues, “smuggling is a consequence and not the cause of migration flows from and through the Middle East and North Africa. There will be no end to the sea crossings until people are not forced to flee.”
The same connection is made by Gaspar Rivera Salgado, former coordinator of the Binational Front of Indigenous Organizations, a network of indigenous migrants in Mexico and the U.S. “We need development [in Mexico] that makes migration a choice rather than a necessity — the right to stay home. That means schools, health care, jobs, good prices for corn and agricultural products,” he says. “At the same time, we want immigration amnesty and legalization for undocumented migrants [in the U.S.] – the right to work, but with labor rights and benefits, not slavery.”
An immigration policy that protects migrants from drowning or dying in the desert must link these two basic rights – to stay home, and to equality and dignity when people leave and migrate.
Photo: A Nigerian migrant sells purses on a street in Naples. | David Bacon