In October 2013, a ship carrying migrants sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean. Some 300 people drowned. European leaders expressed anger and outrage. The Italian government declared a national day of mourning. ‘I hope that this will be the last time we see a tragedy of this kind’, said Jean-Claude Mignon, head of the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly, ‘and I make a fervent appeal for specific, urgent action by member states to end this shame’. The disaster, UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon promised, would be ‘a spur to action’.
In the wake of the tragedy, I wrote that such leaders may well be ‘sincere in their expressions of anger and grief’. And yet, I observed, ‘one cannot but be cynical about all the lamentation. The horror of Lampedusa did not come out of the blue. Much of the responsibility lies with the policies pursued by European nations.’
And I concluded:
The next time there is another tragedy as at Lampudesa – and there will be a next time, and a next time after that – and politicians across Europe express shock and grief and anger, remember this: they could have helped prevent it, and chose not to. That is the real disgrace.
There has indeed been a next time. And a next time after that. In fact, over the past two years Europe has been witness to a constant parade of disasters and tragedies and crises. And after every one, politicians have wrung their hands, and expressed their anger and promised that it will never happen again. And after every one they have refused to do the one thing that might have prevented such a tragedy: liberalize border controls, dismantle ‘Fortress Europe’, open up legal routes for migrants. Instead, they have continued to reinforce Europe as a citadel against immigration, shielded by laws that cut off most legal points of entry, and protected by walls and fences, by sea, air and land patrols, by a high-tech surveillance system of satellites and drones. When a journalist from Germany’s Der Speigel magazine visited the control room of Frontex, the EU’s border agency, he observed that the language used was that of ‘defending Europe against an enemy’.
Germany’s decision on Sunday to reintroduce border controls and temporarily to exit the Schengen group, a week after it opened its doors to all unregistered migrants coming through Hungary and Austria, might suggest that the liberalization of border controls is untenable. Germany’s actions were not, however, a serious policy decision, but more like reflex strikes in a bitter internal struggle within the EU over how to deal with the question of refugees and migrants. Germany’s initial reaction, effectively suspending EU rules encapsulated in the Dublin Convention, was an attempt to assert its moral authority over the issue. Its subsequent decision to reintroduce border controls was again to send a message to other EU nation, to try to force them to come to some agreement about refugee quotas. The German government has taken a far more generous view of asylum seekers than most other EU countries. The willingness of many ordinary Germans (and, indeed, of many ordinary people throughout the EU) to welcome more refugees, and to take to the streets to make their voices heard, has been heartwarming. Nevertheless, there is something objectionable about the German government’s use of migrants as fodder in a political battle within the EU. Germany’s actions tell us little about the consequences of properly organized liberalization of border controls. In any case, those who argue that liberalized controls would mean a ‘flood’ on migrants to Europe forget that the current policy is not preventing people from attempting to reach Europe. It is simply killing them, by the boatload.
It is worth adding that while numbers of refugees coming to Europe are large, they are not ‘unprecedented’ as many claim, either comparatively or historically. The UNHCR estimates that some 400,000 have arrived by sea at Europe’s borders this year, almost double the 2014 total. But that represents less than 0.1 per cent of the EU population. There are already 1.1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon – 20 per cent of the population. There are nearly 2 million refugees in Turkey, and more than 600,000 in Jordan. Compared to elsewhere in the world, refugees are hardly ‘flooding’ into Europe. The poorer countries bear the greatest burden. And even if every single Syrian refugee were to come to the EU, that would represent less than 1 per cent of the continent’s population.
And while there are more refugees than ever before in the world, the numbers coming to Europe are historically not unprecedented. In 1914, at the start of the First World War, a million Belgians fled their country. Britain, alone, played host to a quarter of a million Belgian refugees – and without any great strain. Some three million people fled Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. 2.5 million were resettled, mainly in North America and Europe. The USA – with a population smaller than that of the EU – alone took in more than a million. The numbers entering Europe today only seem frightening because we have lost perspective.
When the image of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year old Syrian boy who drowned near Bodrum in Turkey, was flashed around the world, it generated shock and horror. The little boy’s body seemed like so much debris washed up on the beach. Yet that is exactly how the Fortress Europe approach has come to view migrants – not so much as human beings as flotsam and jetsam to be swept away from Europe’s shoreline.
Aylan Kurdi will not have been the first child migrant to have died on Europe’s beaches. Nor will he be the last. Since 1993, it is estimated, some 25,000 people have died trying to cross Europe’s borders. The true figure is probably much higher. There will have been thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, who have perished in silence, their deaths never recorded. But only now have we begun to notice, to talk of a ‘crisis’.
The crisis, however, is not simply one of refugees. It is also a crisis of Europe’s response. Until Europe’s politicians recognize that walls and warships, and the language of war, are not useful responses to the issue of migration, then there will continue to be more crises, more tragedies, more politicians wringing hands. And we will be forced to repeat again, ‘Remember this: they could have helped prevent it, and chose not to.’
A shorter version of the essay appeared as part of a collection of responses to the refugee crisis on 3 Quarks Daily.