Two thousand four hundred ninety-eight persons died or went missing this year in the Mediterranean, trying to reach Europe without authorization. No country alone can possibly address such a challenge. But no country is entitled to exempt itself, and coordination is crucial. Refugees and displaced persons are too often someone else’s problem. They need to become a shared global responsibility--if our most pressing concern is indeed curbing refugee deaths. At sea, and in the back of a truck, the contradictions of our age keep resurfacing, demanding rational deliberation rather than patchy procrastination.
There are no coincidences, when it comes to global migration. The majority of people crossing the Mediterranean (mostly from Libya to Italy and Turkey to Greece) are leaving behind the certainty of war and of daily oppression. They are survivors who envision reuniting with family members, healing their children, pursuing jobs and education. Some intend to send remittances back home. Others do not have a home anymore. Eritrean and Afghani nationals constitute 22 per cent of maritime arrivals this year; Syrians 43 per cent. When one asks the latter about the situation in Syria, the answer is bleak: “which Syria?”
More than 200,000 Eritrean refugees live in Ethiopia and Sudan. Unstable Sudan, where some of the transnational human smuggling networks originate, has been hosting Eritrean refugees for more than forty years. As with other protracted refugee situations, durable solutions are limited: local integration; international resettlement; and repatriation. Repatriation is particularly unlikely for Eritreans: new generations are massively leaving the country (5,000 per month) to avoid mandatory, long-term national service, when not “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations.” Generations of Afghan refugees have also been exposed to the displacement of their youth. As an Afghan man put it to me, you don’t have to suffer violence directly: you often escape the credible threat of either inflicting or suffering violence. There are some 950,000 Afghan refugees in Iran. Journeys take years and are transcontinental: from Afghanistan to the UK for example, through Iran, Turkey, Greece, and Italy. While 86 per cent of the world’s refugees are hosted in developing countries, geography is not destiny, and mobility is emerging as a globally-shared prerogative.
The challenge of refugee death and exploitation by smugglers is an epochal one. There are no easy solutions, but we can no longer afford costly excuses. By questioning common justifications for insufficient or ineffective action, European citizens and policymakers can also start considering more fair and attainable proposals. But what can I do, you may be asking? I am just one person. Here’s my response.
There are no coincidences, when it comes to global migration. The majority of people crossing the Mediterranean (mostly from Libya to Italy and Turkey to Greece) are leaving behind the certainty of war and of daily oppression.
“We cannot help all of them.” We are not helping all of them. We are not even helping most of them.We did not help the 2,498 persons who died this year. But that doesn’t mean that we can help no one. More than four million Syrians have fled war and become refugees in neighbouring countries. Turkey is home to around 45 per cent of all Syrian refugees in the region, followed by Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt. Diverse Lebanon is now hosting a Syrian population that, relative to the total population, would be the equivalent of the US hosting 88 million people.
“They need to be helped at home.” First there needs to be a home, or a community that can be safely reconstructed through the participation of its own members. Second, ruling elites have historically used their leverage in the “war on smuggling” to summarily incarcerate foreigners and strengthen despotic control over citizens, thus engendering emigration. What is less controversial is the need to better fund the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The funding gap for UNHCR’s refugee-related operations corresponds to 45 per cent of overall requirements. Thousands of displaced persons do not see their most essential needs met, even in the vicinity of Europe.
“Let’s crack down on smugglers.” Smuggling networks, to quote the European Union Commission, “can be weakened if fewer people seek their services. Therefore, it is important to open more safe, legal ways into the EU”. There are feasible ways to undermine smugglers’ lucrative monopoly: a more efficient bureaucracy for family reunifications and student visas; legal channels for refugees to seek temporary protection; an equitable resettlement initiative; the creation of labor quotas that actually meet the economy’s demands. Policymakers need to address citizens’ concerns. How does an ageing Europe sustain itself, today and in the near future? Why aren’t labor rights always protected, as new workers arrive? How much does it cost to build and surveil a fence that is proving futile? How much does it cost to rescue a family versus properly resettling them?
“Citizens are fed up.” As they await concerted action and answers, thousands of citizens are tirelessly assisting newly arrived refugees, including in struggling Greek islands, Serbian cities, and southern Italian port towns. Local administrators, police forces, priests, imams, and volunteers seek burial sites and shelters. German, Austrian, and Italian residents open their doors and tear down prejudice. In coastal Zuwara, Libya, locals are demonstrating against human smugglers and war profiteers.
On the high seas, and surrounded by tall sunflower fields between Serbia and Hungary, refugees are patiently fighting for the recognition of their rights. A family’s right to apply for asylum cannot be left to a smuggler’s discretion.
“How many human rights can we afford?” All of them. We might have diverging computation priorities here, but I’d give whatever it takes to rescue a single person and my humanity with her.
Maurizio Albahari is the author of "Crimes of Peace: Mediterranean Migrations at the World’s Deadliest Border" (Pennsylvania Studies in Human Rights, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015). He is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Notre Dame.