Drowned bodies in the Mediterranean and Europe’s responsibility

Drowned bodies in the Mediterranean and Europe’s responsibility

Date: 20 April 2015

This will never stop.

This weekend’s tragedy with up to 700 migrants feared drowned is just the most recent in a long series of tragedies involving desperate people trying to reach Europe.

Last year 170,100 refugees reached Italian shores by boat from Africa. That’s a rise of over 300% on the 42,925 people who arrived in 2013. They used to come only in the calmer summer months, but now they brave the winter storms and twenty foot waves too. The numbers for the first two months of 2015 are double those for 2014.

This is not a blip. An aberration. These people will never stop coming. However many of them we try to drown or lock up.

In an act of moral cowardice unusually repugnant even by British standards, our government led the way in ending Mare Nostrum, the EU’s rescue operation in the Mediterranean, last year, at the exact time when the need for it became extreme. More than 4,000 refugees drowned in the Med in 2014 despite Mare Nostrum (the real figure is much higher— those are only the bodies that were recovered). How many will die now it’s been withdrawn?

The replacement program, Triton, has a third of the resources and is limited to patrolling within thirty miles of the Italian coast. This amounts to an official policy of deliberately letting migrants drown to deter others from coming, cloaked under a nauseating faux concern for their well-being.

Europe’s other proposed responses are equally barbaric. Militarised camps, aka ‘processing centres’, on the southern shores of the Med. Arming the navies of Maghreb countries to intercept the migrant boats, round them up and send them back where they came from. ‘This would produce a real deterrent effect, so that fewer and fewer migrants would be ready to put their life at risk to reach European coasts,’ as the leaked Italian proposal for the latter scheme put it.

Except it wouldn’t. At the heart of our self-delusion about migration is a wilful misunderstanding of why people come. They don’t come to soak the benefits system, because hardly any of them know it exists. They come out of desperation, because their country is on fire or their government is repressive or climate change is killing their crops. Often that’s down to the West. We removed the Gaddafi regime in Libya, odious as it might have been, leaving a vacuum state that’s the epicentre of migrant smuggling. We are right behind the Sisi regime in Egypt, which is cracking down on Arab Spring dissidents and Muslims. Sisi is also privatising state assets at a rate of knots (which is a key reason why the West supports him), putting large numbers of workers on the street. There’s a long and intimate connection between World Bank privatisation schemes and mass migration. We’re the primary source of climate change emissions. I don’t need to tell you what we’ve done in the Middle East.

We urgently need a proper conversation about migration in this country, and in Europe. To acknowledge what we do to cause migration and correct it. To decide what we’re going to do about our rapidly aging population, which requires an infusion of hundreds of thousands of young, talented, hard-working people to keep up the employment base. Who wins and who loses if we let those people in? What about the extra load on public services? Does that require a major increase in taxation of the rich? (Spoiler: of course it fucking does.) What about the morality of taking skilled people from poor countries who need them even more than we do? What do contemporary patterns of outsourcing and de-skilling in many professions imply for our future needs?

The basic question we need to ask ourselves, and without giving too much away this underscores both storylines, is what kind of society do we want to be?

We don’t have any of these conversations. Instead, we just let people drown.

That is pure cowardice. All my plays are about bringing the reality of what’s really happening in the world home, and that’s what happens to both characters in my current play Lampedusa – a former Italian fisherman who now earns a living salvaging the bodies of migrants who drown and a British student with a Chinese background working for a payday loans company. They keep the reality of what they do at arm’s length, until one day they just can’t any more. The barrier cracks. What will they do then?

I hope our collective barrier cracks, and soon. And when it does, that we will have the courage and the dignity to ask the right questions.

This Saturday, join Global Justice Now, the Movement Against Xenophobia, Stop The War Coalition and the Black Activists Against Rising Cuts (BARAC) for a ‘Migrant Lives Matter’ protest at the London headquarters of the European Union. More info on facebook.

Photo: Migrant rights protest in Lausanne 2014. Credit: Flickr/Gustave Deghilage