Maybe don’t give me your poor, your tired, your huddled masses
As we saw last week, Africans are desperately risking, and losing, their lives in the struggle to get into Europe. They come above all from the war-afflicted states of Eritrea, Somalia and Syria. They trek to Libya (itself now increasingly in bloody turmoil, a Spring long gone) or Tunisia, and from there seek a boat to the island of Lampedusa, the southernmost piece of Italian soil, nearer to the north African coast than it is to Sicily.
The emigrants pay up to 1,000 euros to traffickers, who sometimes take their money and disappear, sometimes pack hundreds of them into fishing boats, which might normally carry a dozen men. From there they set off to cover the 80 or so miles to the lovely island, a luxurious resort with some of the best beaches on the planet, and now the fevered hope of some of the world’s poorest.
At the end of last week, a 66-foot ship with upwards of 500 of these people sank less than a mile from Lampedusa. More than 150 were rescued; as many as 350 may have drowned. Italy, mired in recession with burgeoning unemployment for all, and especially for the young, is no more generous to illegal emigrants than the rest of Europe, but the scale caused shock there and throughout the continent. Unlikely, though, that it will it cause a change in attitude.
The Mediterranean immigrants are not just fleeing poverty — as emigrants, including millions from Italy in the past two centuries, have always done. They are fleeing death. The largest proportion of the Mediterranean immigrants come from Eritrea, Somalia and Syria. The plight of those three countries makes clear what their citizens are running from, even if it’s unclear what they’re running towards.
Eritrea achieved its independence from Ethiopia — itself no poster child of human rights — in 1991, at the cost of a succession of draining wars with Ethiopia and other states, and a tightening authoritarianism that has seen many flee from a slave-like forced military service and a fearsome persecution of all unregistered religious worship. Somalia, for years un-governed, now has a fragile government in place. It is still, however, haunted by the al Qaeda-linked al Shabab terrorist group (which carried out the murderous siege of the shopping mall in Kenya last month). Shabab’s control of parts of the country — now loosened — saw a strong version of Sharia Law imposed, with beheadings and repression of women and minorities.
Syria, meanwhile, continues its slouch towards degradation. BBC Panorama last week had cameras in a hospital just inside the Syrian side of the border with Turkey when first a trickle, and then a flood of children were rushed in. They were screaming in pain from the effects of an incendiary bomb containing napalm, or a substance like it, which had been dropped from a government fighter on a school playground. Many died in their agony; it was a snapshot of a much wider misery.
Fleeing towards opportunity should be in European memory. Half of the population of Ireland and up to a third of Sweden’s and of Italy’s emigrated, mostly in the last two centuries. Most were bound for the U.S.: many, too, were packed in overcrowded ships, and they too at times went down in the longer, stormier crossing. But contentment and wealth cancel such memories. Now we encourage politicians to protect our living standards from the invading hordes, the same hordes depicted in popular conversation and some newspapers as voracious for European welfare.
Some politicians and others argue that Europe, shrinking demographically, needs new blood, muscle and brain – but almost all who believe that borders should be open say that programs must be planned, regulated and explained to both domestic electorates and foreign immigrants. In a new book, Exodus, the Oxford professor Paul Collier argues that “nations are ‘legitimate moral units’ that must be taken seriously” — “whether small poor nations, with their intractable and worsening problems, or successful modernized nations” — and both have the right to protect their living standards. The European Union has signed a handful of “mobility agreements” that seek to regulate the immigration flows — but so far they have been with countries like Morocco, where the problems are relatively small.
Immigration will continue, and will become increasingly contested. Politicians of every color will be impelled to oppose it — as the French socialist Interior Minister Manuel Valls did last month, when he said that the Roma (formerly known as gypsies), from Bulgaria and Romania, should be deported from France. There is no possibility of ordinary people in crisis-hit European countries welcoming more immigrants, yet something must be done to alleviate the immigrants’ desperation. This is especially true in those states, like France and the UK, that colonized much of Africa deep into the 20th century.
There is some recognition of this. France sent a force of 4,500 troops into Mali early this year, to help a weak government military push back insurgent Islamist forces: in August, a reformist president, Ibrahim Keita, was convincingly elected. Britain has constructed a $70 million package of support for Somalia to supply medical aid and investment. The writer Justin Marozzi, an adviser to the country’s prime minister, wrote in the Times that in the absence of al Shabab, ousted in the summer of 2011 from the capital Mogadishu, he can now drive about the city “without a second thought.” A fragile peace is in place, gradually extending. Over time, with continued improvement, the immigrants’ flight should decline. Yet much larger intervention is needed in the areas from which people are impelled to flee.
Africa still remains, in many parts, a benighted continent. Many of the most active and courageous seek a better life elsewhere — and will continue to meet at best a grudging response if they succeed in reaching Europe. We still owe it to them, and to the world, and finally to our own security, to make their countries worth living in — and make Lampedusa less worth dying for.
PHOTO: Coffins of victims from a shipwreck off Sicily are seen in a hangar of the Lampedusa airport October 5, 2013. Rough seas again blocked efforts to recover the bodies trapped inside a boat that sank on Thursday, killing an estimated 300 Eritrean and Somali men, women and children who were seeking a better life in Europe. REUTERS/Antonio Parrinello