Friday, 8 April 2011

Illegal Immigrants

If you happened to be following the news carefully on Wednesday, April 6, in Europe, you might just have picked up reports about a tragedy which took place in the Mediterranean early in the morning between Libya and the small Italian island of Lampedusa.

A boat carrying perhaps as many as three hundred migrants capsized in heavy seas. Despite the efforts of three rescue ships, a plane and a helicopter from the Italian coastguard, only around fifty people could be rescued; over two hundred are feared dead. Most of those on board came apparently from Somalia and Eritrea and couldn’t swim – though given the high waves and Force 6 winds, it’s questionable how much this would have helped.

Just another ordinary day in the Western Mediterranean. The death of over two hundred people didn’t make the top headlines anywhere I checked on Wednesday evening, apart from Italy – and even there some papers preferred opening with Berlusconi’s latest sex story, La Repubblica being an honourable exception. 

The unrest sweeping across North Africa since the beginning of the year has increased the number of Tunisians, Libyans and others attempting to leave their homes for the golden fleshpots of Europe – and also the media coverage of the phenomenon – but they are only the tip of a long-existing iceberg. It is estimated that around half a million illegal immigrants enter Europe every year, a quarter of them through Spain. For the past three years, this has been more than the number assumed to have entered the United States. In the past fifteen years, at least five thousand people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean to Europe. Lampedusa, around half-way between Tunisia and Italy, is an pretty arid island about 20 square kilometres large and has a population of under 5,000. Over 22,000 fugitives of one sort or another have reached it by boat in the past three months.

* * * * *

A small thought experiment:

On the morning of April 6, 2011, a freak wave caused the ferry boat, Andrew J. Berberi to capsize and sink, halfway between Manhattan and Staten Island. Of the three hundred people on board, around two hundred and fifty are feared drowned …

News specials worldwide, CNN, Fox and Sky News reporting continually, President Obama and Mayor Bloomberg making speeches and promising thorough investigations and possible consequences, messages of condolence pouring in from leaders the world over, etc., etc.

* * * * *

Fear and suspicion of strangers is very deeply rooted within us. Like almost all other primates, we are social animals and evolved in groups. Indeed, for most of our existence, humans have lived in groups of anywhere between fifteen and fifty – over the millennia various kinds of loose, larger groups, recognising each other has having some kind of common identity also seem to have developed. Following a number of discoveries leading to the development of agriculture, local population densities could increase and our social tendencies showed themselves adaptable towards much larger units, resulting finally in nation states. But a basic factor in any kind of group identity is the division between us and them. And, I suspect, part of this tendency to distinguish – which, in pre-rational, animal terms makes evolutionary survival sense – is a visceral feeling that we are better than them.

But our evolutionary development has led us far beyond this, through the growth of our rational capabilities and the development of moral sensibility. We have surmounted many aspects of our animal inheritance. It is common that the dominant individuals in a group – alpha males and alpha females – are prepared to go to considerable lengths to ensure the continuing supremacy of their genes in the group. It can be argued, for example, that the roots of aristocracy can be found in this behavioural tendency.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal …” With this famous phrase at the latest, humanity rejected any basis for a special position for aristocracy. It is also a rejection of any argument that any group of people are inherently superior to any other. Since 1776, this basic view of humanity has become the foundation of civilised societies the world over. In its most fundamental international form, it is the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the UN General Assembly on December 10, 1948; “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” (Article 1).

What, then of the rights of migrants, those who wish to leave the land of their birth, their citizenship, to seek their fortune elsewhere?

The UDHR refers explicitly to the right of those politically persecuted to asylum (Article 14) and this right is generally recognised worldwide, even if many “developed” countries have hedged it with so many qualifications and administrative hurdles that it can be quite difficult to achieve in practice. But let us be generous and concede that this possibility is there for those oppressed because of their political or religious views. They are only a small fraction of the millions of migrants underway world wide anyway – a million or so of whom enter the western “developed” world [Europe, USA, Canada, Australia, etc.] illegally every year. How are they to be dealt with, on what basis can decisions be taken about who should be let in and who not, and what is to be done with those who are refused admission?

These are hard questions for which I do not have answers. What I do know, however, is that many of the grounds on which the “developed” countries base their policies – while they may have empirical justifications – have nothing to do with the principles and fundamentals of public morality we so like to give lip service to.

The basic reason why most migrants want to get into Europe or the USA is because they hope for a better life there than they can ever see themselves achieving in their countries of origin. They are economic refugees, fleeing lives of dire poverty and minimal prospects of advancement in their native lands. And a large part of the reason why their native countries are so poor and offer such dismal prospects is because these countries have historically been, and are currently exploited in all sorts of ways by the so-called developed world. Our wealth, our social and medical and educational systems, our standards of living depend, to quite an extent, on the poverty in the countries the “illegals” are coming from.

For all sorts of complex reasons, then, an imbalance is produced – a discrepancy between some countries and others. In all of this complexity, one group of people cannot be given the responsibility for the situation, the masses – the majority of them young men – who follow a deep natural urge to wish for a better life for themselves (and, in many cases, others who are dependent on them) and to do something about it.

In fact, the rich societies which try to shut out those who come to crash their borders are in many ways responsible for the situation in which they find themselves. Apart from all the issues of history, imperialism and economic power, they continually project the message to the world – the poorer world – that life as lived in their countries is better, superior than all others, that the image of the way of life they proclaim in every possible media is the only one really desirable. If you are living in the slums of Mogadishu or Mexico City, then the life you see portrayed in Desperate Housewives or advertisements for Mercedes Benz or iPhones or Rolex, or even Fifty Cent or Lady Gaga videos is going to seem very attractive. You may even be sceptical as to whether it is all true but of one thing you can be pretty sure – it has to be better than where you are now.

And so you screw up all your courage, you scrape the money (and we are usually talking of four figure dollar sums, which is a hell of a lot of money for people in such a situation) together and embark on an uncertain, dangerous journey – with no guarantee of success.

A journey which can end in a watery death in the Mediterranean in the dark hours before the dawn. It is possible that your family and those that you love will never find out what has happened to you.

I am not a starry-eyed idealist. I don’t believe we can abolish borders in the morning. What I do know, however, is that the basic reason behind the millions who try – legally and illegally – to relocate from poorer to richer countries every year is the massive discrepancy in wealth and opportunity between different regions of the world, and that a large part of the reasons for the origins and continuation of this discrepancy has to do with all sorts of unfairness and injustice in the relationships between the richer and poorer countries.

If we in the developed west are to be honest about it, the basic reason why we try to close our borders is that we see those who want to come in as a threat (even if certain parts of our economies are hypocritically dependent on the cheap unsecured labour provided by illegals). Despite the lip-service we pay to principles such as equality and human dignity, they are not an issue when it comes to immigration; the only principle applied is self-interest.

The problem is that building walls and fences isn’t going to change things – the millions trying to get into the developed world by any means, fair or foul, will continue to do so, for they have nothing to lose. The only way to effectively deal with the issue is to start tackling the roots of the problem – to help the countries from which the migrants are coming to offer their own citizens reasons not to leave.

We don’t have to, of course. We can go on living in our fortresses, secure in the knowledge that our borders are being protected by barbed wire and dogs and guards with guns, to keep out the hungry hordes who were simply misfortunate enough not to have been born citizens of our countries. But we will still have to look at ourselves in the mirror every day, in the knowledge that we limit the rights we proclaim to be universal to members of our own group.

I heard a radio interview with the mayor of Lampedusa recently. For months now, his island has been the goal of packed shiploads of people attempting to reach the EU from North Africa. The few thousand inhabitants of his island have been doing their best to help those reaching them – but they are being overwhelmed. Speaking in an admirably honest manner, he reflected that his attitude was changing (something he felt deeply uncomfortable and sad about); while he was still touched by the plight and misery of those landing on his island, he was becoming increasingly hardened to their situation. “Some days I find myself hating them,” he confessed.

* * * * *

It may come as a surprise to many hysterical US Americans who see the present situation on the Mexican border as a desperate threat, that this is not by any means a new issue. "Deportee (Plane Crash at Los Gatos)" was written by Woody Guthrie in 1948 about the situation of Mexicans trying to enter the USA, then often known as "Wetbacks," because they had waded across/swum the Rio Grande. It was a folk-singer standard in the early sixties - this is a version by Joan Baez:

Pictures retrieved from:


  1. Just a small comment on your thought experiment. Yes, if the Staten Island ferry capsized we would hear lots of news about it. But if there had been lots of news about the capsizing of the illegal immigrants’ boat, I don’t see how it would have benefited them or their families.

    You buy a ticket on the Staten Island ferry, you feel entitled to a safe service. You buy a ticket from an unscrupulous people-trafficker, you take your life in your hands.

    Not only that but since our ancestors first made boats and migrated from one continent to another,the risk of drowning has never been far away. We who have health and safety, democracy and so forth, are really the odd ones out, if you take history as a whole.

    I sympathise with the Mayor of Lampedusa. He has the balance right. None of us can take on the burden of the world’s imbalances.

    I recommend Niall Ferguson’s Empire: how Britain made the modern world. It shows how the self-interest of nation-states, or of powerful individuals, has almost always over-ruled compassion for other peoples. It’s shocking to know what has been done by England/Britain. But it was the size of the Empire and its power which gave the opportunity. One empire crumbles, another takes its place.

  2. While we're still in the process of waiting for the Canadian government to allow my husband permanent residency we do know that if, for some bizarre reason, he isn't allowed to stay then at worst, we'd be returning to the US. When I think of all those poor people you describe, some of whom we've met, being forced to return to so much worse places my heart aches. Tonight we watched 'Children of Men' for the second time which revolves around the way Britain might deal with illegal aliens just a couple of decades from now. Your answer really is the only correct way to solve the predicament. Then perhaps some future generation can tear down the borders.

  3. I have been accused of putting my small charity fund to poor use because I give to a Haitian Relief Fund. I am told that I "should" give to Americans, here in our own country: us.

    I think the majority of people are naturally selfish. They care so much about themselves, and then their family, and then their communities, etc., that they could never be wealthy enough to care about boat load of "not us."

    From my comfy position in American, I think the American Dream, is just that, the American Dream. It is not the Haitian dream and it is certainly not the African dream or the Central American Dream, or even the Mexican Dream.

    Those not in America (or any other wealthy nation) need to make their own dreams and they need not dream about a home, two and half kids and a two car garage. They can dream about a bowl full of rice and a can of beans. As a great American once said, "A man has got to know his limitations."

  4. I don't know about you in Germany. But in Australia the media, especially the right-wing media, agonise endlessly about this distinction between refugees fleeing persecution and "economic" migrants seeking a better life. Whilst some compassion goes to the category of the former the latter are worse than dole-bludgers and welfare-cheats.

    The miserliness of generosity is sometimes unfathomable.

  5. My parents brought my brother and me to the U.S. in 1967 as legal immigrants from Portugal (which is still one the poorest members of the EU and continues to have a sizable percentage of immigrants to many other European nations). My uncle had married an American and the immigration laws then were such that he was able to sponsor us. We traveled comfortably by plane and arrived in a working-class western Massachusetts town that was clean and safe. There were plenty of manufacturing jobs and life was essentially good. We are white, we learned the language, I went to college and today, I suppose you could say that my brother's children and mine have realized success, American style. My brother's son, in fact, is a graduate of Dartmouth, one of the prestigious Ivy Leagues. I'm not ungrateful for this. In fact, I often have mixed feeling about "biting the hand that feeds me", as I'm a vocal critic of this government and its policies, particularly toward human rights, military foreign policy, trade and of course, immigration.

    Even under those comfortable immigrant circumstances, it was not an easy row to hoe for my family. I can only imagine the pain, suffering, misery and heartbreak of illegal immigrants from poor, war-torn countries. My parents wanted a better future for their children. Today's migrants want a roof over their heads and food for their kids.

    It makes me sick at heart to hear some of the "rationales" for keeping Mexicans out of the U.S., for example. There is so little compassion and so much resistance to "strangers". You make a good point about how though it is hardwired in our DNA to resist strangers, we should have come along much farther than this by now. This attitude smacks of everything that worries me about humanity.

    This is very thought-provoking. I like a good shake-up every once in a while! Oh and thanks for the link to the Italian article. I've discovered over the years that to me, being a native Portuguese speaker, Italian is the closest of the romance languages to Portuguese. I think I could actually learn to be fluent in it. German? Forget it! :-)


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