The rescue of hundreds of migrants on Ezadeen and Blue Sky cargo ships in the last few days has captured media attention especially for the size of the vessels involved – no longer old fishing boats but freighters up to 100m long – and smugglers’ tactic of leaving the boat unmanned in open sea. The boats have immediately set off alarm bells as the new arrivals have been taken as evidence of a change of scale of ‘human smuggling inc’ in the Mediterranean. A part for the size of the ships and the tactics, two additional elements seem to confirm this change: firstly, the emergence of a new route from Turkey – a sign, on the one hand, that the political situation in Libya has become far to dangerous and unstable even for smugglers, on the other, that Turkey may be less keen in combatting unauthorised migration for the EU in retaliation for EU’s criticism of president Erdogan; secondly, the time of arrival. Boat migration is traditionally a seasonal phenomenon, with the summer months seeing by far more irregular crossings than the rest of the year. Since last September, data from FRONTEX show significant arrivals also in the winter months with over 11,000 since 1 November alone. While the use of larger vessels can be partly a response to weather conditions in the winter, it is also an indication of smugglers’ economic power and infrastructure, and their responsiveness to changing geopolitical conditions.
Interviewed by Jon Sopel on BBC World’s Global on EU response to migrants’ irregular crossings in the Mediterranean.
[Caveat: A few unrefined thoughts likely to change over the next few hours]
Tonight I am an ‘expert witness’ on the BBC Radio 4’s programme Moral Maze, the topic is immigration and I have been invited to reflect on the moral issues raised by the tragic incident off the coast of Lampedusa. As a constructivist sociologist, questions around ethics (especially my own) are not often at the forefront of the work I do. They are of course in the background, inspiring the kind of questions I ask, the people I choose to interview, the methods I use. I tend to look at normative framings (including human rights) as a subject of investigation rather than as a given. My recent review essay on globalization, rights and the non-citizen is an example of the work I am doing in this direction. But now, I am facing with a philosophical question on morality (which given my anthropological background sounds at times Euro-centric and paternalist) and in thinking on it I can’t avoid to go back to history instead, to colonial and post-colonial legacies, to how the world is inextricably interconnected. The paradox of a human rights framework which governments like the UK are happy to use only when it doesn’t affect them comes inevitably to mind, so at the end I’m back to an immanent critique of the state and the EU who commit on paper to principles they then only uphold selectively.
As I wrote in my comment piece on The Conversation, smuggling is not the cause of migration. It is ‘a reaction to borders control’, to use Hein de Haas‘ words, the symptom of an unfulfilled demand for migration that can’t find other legal routes, which would be safer and possibly also cheaper. This reminds me of the advert on citizenship planning for wealth ‘citizens of the world’ I saw on a transatlantic flight last August.
For someone seeking asylum and international protection, crossing a border without authorisation is often the only way for them to be able to claim asylum legally. Of course, not every migrant is a refugee.
The point is that immigration governance is not rocket science and it is not a zero-sum equation. There is no one-off solution that a single country or even the EU can take that would stop the arrival of boat migrants. Migration is the product of complex systemic (and historical) and personal factors, with relative wealth differentials being one of them. No single receiving country or group of countries is in control of all these factors. A few more boats patrolling the Mediterranean can certainly have an impacts on the routes pursued by smugglers who transport migrants and refugees but, for example, would not stop the exodus from Syria as it does little to solve the civil war. Instead, it can push smugglers and migrants to take even more risky routes and, as a result, increase the number of deaths at sea.
There is also a further more complex interaction that it is worth some consideration. The closure of legal immigration routes to the EU has taken away for many households in North Africa and more widely an important source of income, namely the remittances of young migrants sent abroad. Has this contributed to create the conditions for the social and political movements that have changed the face of North Africa and the Middle East? In an article for Forced Migration Review (FMR 39, 2012)I co-authored with Hein de Haas we discuss the interactions between migration and revolutions.