Hungary’s elected fascist government just took further steps to criminalize aid to migrants. In the United States, Mr Trump’s policy to separate thousands of migrant children from their parents at the southern border is criticized by his own party, and even by his wife, not the most vocal of recent First Ladies. No doubt there is opposition in Hungary, too- but clearly not enough to avoid collective shame.
The only good consequence of the various crises, including Italy’s newfound official xenophobia and migrant policies threatening the fragile German coalition, is that it puts the problem even more squarely on the political agenda for the EU- and not with long deadlines, but having to deliver some kind of progress and a sustainable policy within weeks.
Like any half-decent citizen of Europe and the world, I am giving this much thought.
The Aquarius and the other vessels carrying hundreds of migrants, refused entry by Italy and Malta, last weekend finally docked in Valencia, Spain. I did have a moment of pride for my adopted country for showing the humanity that others sorely lacked.
The new Italian right wing government obviously could not fail to use the situation for an easy score with its constituencies: that was a guaranteed penalty shot. It’s cheap and predictable, apart from being inhumane, and should be denounced as such. But the Italian people put that crew in charge, like Hungarians did in Budapest, and some of their concerns regarding the migrants are legitimate. The burden sharing in the European Union is seriously flawed, true. But the sad irony is that these disequilibria are by and large the result of the kind of xenophobia that Italy has now joined.
Even more unfortunately, there are other harsh truths to be told about the shameful migratory situation in the Mediterranean. I’ll begin with the harshest: bleeding-heart sentimental solidarity is not a solution. Spontaneous solidarity is noble, but it can be fickle and easily slides back into missionary commiseration, which is nothing but a more subtle form of racism, seeing Africans as victims only- not as human beings responsible for their own fate, for their own choices and, frequently enough, their own wars.
Such feelings have ruled so-called development cooperation in Africa for decades, since the wave of independence took over the continent in the 1960s. The staggering numbers of migrants now seeking refuge in Europe testify to the bankruptcy of the approach that sank zillions of dollars in the continent, but mostly benefited socially callous elites and created no jobs and no perspectives for the majority.
I speak from long experience when I venture to say that for much of the last half century, most of our ‘development cooperation’ has done much more harm than good- creating dependencies and undermining self-respect.
The next harsh truth is that the present confusion between economic migrants and bona fide refugees is more and more untenable. Bad to horrible violence prevails in Syria, Yemen, Somalia. Those countries produce refugees, no doubt. There are a few intermediate situations more difficult to judge- the Central African Republic, Burundi, parts of the Congo.
Libya is bad, but serves mostly for transit- in the horrible conditions that we know. Still- Europe has a debt of honor towards Libya and Libyans, due to the tenebrous intrigues of a handful of (now mostly disgraced) EU politicians that brought down Khadafi, and sent the country from bad to much worse.
But as far as I’m concerned, no person from Senegal, Eritrea, Nigeria or even the Sudan should automatically qualify for refugee status, and in many cases not at all.
This is where compassion-based solidarity clashes most with rational thinking. Europe needs immigration in the long run, given the aging of its own population; but allowing for an unchecked influx of unskilled labor, and often subject to racism at that, is just closing an eye to new forms of slavery at home, such as prevails in the vast, plastic horticulture hothouses around Almería in my home region of Andalucía. Been there, seen it.
Refugees and migrants entering the European Union should stand a fair chance of integration, education and dignified employment. As it is, the first generation is often condemned to a marginal existence: legal limbo, housing ran by shark-like profiteers, dependency on handouts either from a state already buckling under social security expenses, or from a church; some dealing, some street vending. Much hanging around on street corners, sleeping in parks- regretting the move? A few are honest enough to admit it, most will not- such is the pride of every immigrant, and the cost or the debt incurred with human traffickers. One may hope that the babies brought over or even born on the migrant ships will reach a better life, twenty years from now. But in the meantime, Africa is bled once more of tens of thousands of active women and men, who should make a difference in their own countries instead of lingering in the margins in the EU.
Few if any African states are democracies as we see it. There may be repression and intolerance: ethnic, religious, gender-based. But every woman and every man running away instead of fighting for change at home, strengthens the hand of a dictator or a corrupt and shortsighted ruler.
These are difficult thoughts to consider, but we must think them.
Europe should long have developed a truly equal economic partnership with Africa: they are so complimentary! Instead of which, we have acted for another fifty years like the missionaries of colonial times, and China has taken root, with the most unsentimental of approaches, and without the post-colonial hangups we still carry.
Whatever the European summit will decide, already now the migrant-and-refugee politics of today recall situations of the 1930’s and the 1940s. It’s not just the new fascism that’s on the rise, also its wider consequences. But just solidarity from the heart and the gut will not work against it, however noble those feelings are. There is need for a rational approach, based on an intelligent understanding of long-term interests of all sides- including the countries of origin.
These reflections do not take away from a shame the entire EU is sharing, Germany and Spain so far excepted. It’s striking that of the sixty-plus million of migrants of all categories worldwide, most of the burden of the real refugees- the ones on the run from war and ethnic hatred- is carried by countries that are themselves much poorer than the EU and the US: Turkey, Bangladesh, Lebanon, Jordan, Uganda…
To go back to Budapest, the city advertising itself so well as a lively and colorful tourist destination: in darker times, under Soviet domination and invasion, many Hungarians were welcomed as refugees in Western Europe and elsewhere. It’s always easier to forget than to remember.
Let the ships dock, reach out with a helping hand- but also think about all that remains unsaid behind the well-meant images, and where the souls saved from angry seas and callous politicians will go next.