EU Referendum

Immigration: contradictions and hypocrisy


Those with longer memories will remember the comedy programme Drop the Dead Donkey which, if nothing else, underlined the cynicism of the tabloid press in pursuit of headlines.

It would be very easy to make the case that the reporting of the recent deaths of 27 migrants in the Channel was an unscripted version of the programme. After all, there was a vast tumult of publicity for not very many deaths compared with the enormous losses elsewhere, the reasons for the attention residing in the golden triangle of news values: proximity, novelty and topicality.

By comparison, the report in early October of 18,000 migrants dying in the Mediterranean simply did not qualify for inclusion in the British media.

This particular set of deceased have clearly made the mistake of dying in distant waters, at a time when migrants in the Mediterranean weren't a "thing" for the British press, and there had been plenty of dead bodies earlier so there was nothing especially novel about reporting on what, after all, was the cumulative effect of serial drownings over a lengthy period.

Without the "creative touches" of an attractive (dead) young lady, or a winsome child plucked from the unforgiving waters, even drowning events with a cast of thousands couldn't compete with a Facebook outage, a potential Christmas turkey shortage, the aftermath of the fuel crisis and a smattering of rapes – one of them attributed to a police officer.

Fortunately for their concerned readers, though, on the back of the Channel drownings, the Guardian has revisited the earlier dead, with an article headed: The most unsafe passage to Europe has claimed 18,000 victims. Who speaks for them?"

The piece is written by Lorenzo Tondo, a Guardian correspondent "covering Italy and the migration crisis", and his secondary theme is that: "As Europe outsources its border policing to Libya, rescue operations by NGOs are hampered by criminal inquiries in Italy".

Starting off with the obligatory "human interest" element, we are told of the gripping news that, in the early hours of 21 June, somewhere in the vast expanse of the central Mediterranean, a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) team on board a rescue vessel received a distress call. The motor of a small boat carrying asylum seekers from Libya had broken down, and the vessel was taking in water.

These, we learn, are the first dramatic scenes in Unsafe Passage – a Guardian Documentaries film by Ed Ou for the Outlaw Ocean Project. The film was released yesterday, which also serves as a topical hook for the piece, but the scenes depicted are said to represent "the first moments in a race against time that repeats itself again and again in the stretch of sea separating Europe from Africa".

From this scenario, there are three possible options. The first is that the Libyan coastguard makes it to the boat before the rescue crew. Then the "refugees" will be pushed back to Libyan detention centres at gunpoint. If the MSF reach the boat, the occupants will be carried to Italy but, if neither reach the vessel, "other lives will be lost in this giant watery graveyard that has already claimed thousands of asylum seekers: more than 1,300 have died or gone missing while attempting to cross the central Mediterranean so far this year alone".

The point that the paper clearly wants to emphasise is that Europe has "not only cast a blind eye on the horror", it has also "made the rescue of these people, and the lives of the rescuers, increasingly complicated".

In February 2017, it asserts, Europe ceded responsibility for overseeing Mediterranean rescue operations to Libya. The deal, struck between Rome and Tripoli, aimed at reducing migration flows across to Europe. And, since then:
… Italy has spent millions of euros to train the Libyan coastguards, and to supply them with numerous patrol vessels. The goal is to help them stop migrants from reaching Sicily and return them to Libya, where they frequently suffer violence and torture in detention centres.
There is more of this in the Outlaw Ocean Project website - a lot more – leading the Guardian to observe that the result of the Libyan "outsourcing" has been disastrous, "exposing the contradictions of that agreement and the hypocrisy of the EU toward the migration crisis".

Thus, the paper continues: the foremost paradox is represented by Libya, a politically unstable country still licking its wounds after its civil war. Italy has indirectly defined Libya as a safe country, even though the Italian authorities have often granted international protection to asylum seekers in recognition of their having been subjected to torture and sexual abuse in Libya. While Rome criticises Libya for its abuse of refugees, just last year Italy renewed its agreement with the country’s coastguard. And yet:
The coastguard is made up of many ex-militia men with allegedly strong ties to human traffickers. In October 2020, authorities in Tripoli arrested Abd al-Rahman Milad, known as Bija, a coastguard commander, over allegations of being behind the drowning of dozens of people. In 2018, the UN alleged Bija was a facilitator of human trafficking and part of a criminal network. Libyan authorities dropped the charges against him in April, citing a lack of evidence, while Milad has denied any links to human smuggling. Last year, an investigation by the Italian newspaper Avvenire claimed he was present at a series of official meetings in Italy in May 2017.
Those readers who are particularly interested can follow the links back to the two sources I cite, and neither make happy reading. But the two key words to take away from the reports are "contradictions" and "hypocrisy", as per the title of this blogpost.

The two words go hand-in-hand: the "liberal" EU, champion of human rights and purveyor of the very highest quality milk of human kindness is at the same time turning a blind eye to unspeakable cruelty and deprivation, all in the name of an immigration policy that it has never been able properly to organise, nor gain unanimous support from its member states.

At the heart of the hypocrisy are two instruments, the 1951 Refugee Convention (as amended) and the earlier (by a year) European Convention on Human Rights. In theory, the EU and its member states fully subscribe to both, yet they all realise that following them to the letter would result in Europe being swamped in an unending tide of migrants which the region simply could not support.

Thus, while paying lip service to the grand principles to which it subscribes, the European collective – of which the UK must be considered a part – imposes increasingly complex procedural and physical barriers to prevent migrants taking advantage of the "rights" which are supposedly available to all.

While, clearly, there is no obvious or single answer to this problem, that does not mean there are no answers. Like so many things in this life, there are probably multiple solutions, with no one of them providing anything other than messy, partial answers.

But a very good start would be to dump the hypocrisy. As long as we, the collective, send out mixed messages to the rest of the world, pretending to hold true to principles that exist only on paper and apply only to the lucky few who manage to circumvent the barriers, we cannot be surprised that so many are prepared to take their chances.

Before we get anywhere with this problem, we have to reconsider both the Refugee Convention and the ECHR. We need new instruments which make it very clear that entry to outsiders is limited and conditional.

For those whom we are prepared to allow entry, we must define a safe, legal procedure, while committing to return those who buck the system – or prevent their entry in the first place, using the appropriate barriers and technology to make that a reality.

Immigration, therefore, should be legal, and it should not be a lottery – and neither should it reward the queue-jumpers and the criminal gangs. And then, while there will always be those who will attempt to cheat the system, we have to stand firm on the principle that those who attempt illegal entry are authors of their own fate, risking hardship and worse for no reward.

With that, we have the technology and the systems to ensure that no one drowns but, if the consequences of humanitarian actions mean that we are them forced to accept those rescued as long-term migrants, then the world cannot be surprised if contradictions and hypocrisy become the de facto policy drivers.

Also published on Turbulent Times.