The government’s Mediterranean migrant story doesn’t add up

The British government is aiming to prevent people coming to the UK regardless of why they are attempting to come


The plight of those attempting to cross the sea that buffers Europe from Africa and the Middle East cannot be allowed to drift from political debate, and the pressure on the United Kingdom to do its share must not be relieved.

Greek economic turmoil, violent Islamic extremism and ‘Budget 2015’ have pushed the Mediterranean migrant crisis towards the back of the political news agenda. However, the problem remains salient, enormous and morally inescapable.

Already this year, over 137,000 individuals have made the treacherous sea journeys, an 83 per cent increase on the first half of 2014, with fatalities tripling.

And yet the UK government has been dragging its feet after refusing to pull its weight, despite being under severe pressure, by opting out of a scheme to resettle migrants and reiterating its stance on forcibly sending people back to their places of origin to display that there is ‘no merit’ in attempting the relocation.

It is a shameful attitude, miserably defended by Conservative ‘explanations’ that both ignore the issue’s most fundamental aspect and frame the argument in a self-interested fashion.

These attempted rationalisations amount to the following: many of the travellers are seeking better job opportunities and financial conditions; they are duped by people-transporting criminals into paying for passage to Europe; they embark upon probably fruitless and potentially fatal journeys; it is those criminals that need to be dealt with in order to protect, not only our borders, but the migrants themselves from harm.

The problem is that the story doesn’t seem quite right when reasonably considering the average case.

Even if one accepts that a traveller had enough information about Europe to deem it desirable but not enough information about the eventual sea voyage to deem it extraordinarily dangerous, why would he or she embark on the journey? He would have to uproot himself (and quite possibly his family), hand over whatever money he had, travel overland for up to thousands of kilometres, join a voyage that, containing illicit aspects, would at the very least be fairly risky, and attempt to cross into a union that may well turn him away.

It seems unlikely that a momentous decision to embark on such a journey would be made unless the individual deemed it necessary – and that is the core aspect of the issue, stealthily and/or unreasonably ignored by explanations such as that outlined above.

What makes these migrants vulnerable is surely desperation, the necessity of their escape – probabilities underplayed by convenient terms such as ‘economic migrants’, in place of ‘asylum seekers’ or potential ‘refugees’. The former wording implies that an unnecessary choice has been made rather than what was in all likelihood, in everything but stringently literal terms, a necessary decision. Reasonably, the answer to the question of why a migrant would reach such a conclusion is that she most likely felt that she had, in effect, no choice.

Consider, for example, two states that home secretary Theresa May has cited as origins of probable ‘economic migrants’ that attempt the Mediterranean crossing – Eritrea and Nigeria. The former is utterly undemocratic and regarded as one of the world’s most repressive countries, while Nigeria is the midst of a displacing, violent conflict between its security forces and the jihadist insurgents, Boko Haram, with both sides implicated in abuses of the state’s people.

Many migrants are fleeing persecution, subjugation, grave danger, or all of the above, not only in the two countries mentioned but in other African states, Syria, Afghanistan, and so on.

The British government aims to prevent these people from coming to Europe and, in particular, the UK, regardless of why they are attempting the extremely perilous relocation. Tagging on vague judicial notions of the ‘need to deal with’ boat-operating ‘criminals’ and pseudo-humanitarian concerns for deceived individuals ‘putting their lives at risk’ does nothing to deflect from the ultimate selfishness of current policy.

Increasingly, people are being forced to migrate because of, amongst other reasons, war and political repression. Their wellbeing must be considered, even if it were to mean 20,000 more UK residents (a 0.03 percent population rise).

In the medium and long-term, international policies aimed at reducing the number and impact of wars, discouraging repressive regimes, establishing global approaches to climate change and promoting ecologically sustainable development can relieve the pressures that lead to involuntary migration. However, such policies will take time to work and, initially, the right lawmakers in place to present them. For now, a humanitarian stance with a commonsense understanding of the reasons for migration – an internationalist position on refugees – is crucial.

Ignoring the simplistic and erroneous scapegoating of immigrants for problems in housing, education, health and local authority services, we can instead respect the economic, social and cultural contributions that arrivals make to our superbly diverse and innovative nation.

Perhaps, though, those reasons aren’t even necessary; maybe only a rational, coherent position on why people are likely to embark upon extensive, arduous and treacherous journeys is enough to, at the very least, listen to their explanation before turning them back towards the misery that they tried desperately to escape.

David Maher is a journalist and member of the Green party

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