By Aijaz Zaka Syed
April 24, 2015
It’s déjà vu all over again with yet another Mediterranean boat tragedy being reported this week. Nearly a thousand people died in their quest for a new life. The mass drowning off the Italian island of Lampedusa has caused an outcry across Europe, with newspapers calling it the “EU’s darkest day.”
European officials are making all the right noises to suit the occasion. EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini says Europe has “no more excuses” not to act on the migrant crisis. German Chancellor Angela Merkel says she’s “appalled” by the disaster, calling it “not worthy of Europe.” “A continent which feels committed to humanity must look for answers even when there are no easy answers,” Merkel was quoted as saying.
This is all very touching, of course. The day after the tragedy, with profound platitudes having been made, everyone moved on. Within no time, the tragedy and the faceless, nameless victims will be little more than a mere speck on the map of history – a lifeless statistic. Until another rickety, overloaded boat with its human cargo washes ashore or is swallowed up by the hungry waters of the Mediterranean.
Refugee and rights groups have been urging European governments to beef up maritime rescue operations and address the underlying causes of the flood of asylum-seekers on Europe’s shores.
Thousands of migrants are being claimed by the world’s biggest watery cemetery as they flee wars and strife in the Middle East and crushing poverty and chaos of Africa. Some 11,000 migrants were rescued last week alone. At least 1,700 of them have lost their lives this year. The month of April saw more deaths than the years 2012 and 2013 combined: 1,200. A migrant has died every two hours.
Chasing the dream of a new world of possibilities, more and more people from the global south are moving up north, often at the cost of their lives. Some of them venture as far as Australia and America.
Tens of thousands of migrants try to enter Europe overland, from Turkey, Greece and eastern Europe. Within Asia, desperate people from Myanmar and other black holes try to move to more prosperous countries.
Why do people migrate? Given a choice, who would want to leave the comforting familiarity and security of their homes, loved ones and the land of their birth? And when one does leave, one often does so compelled by extreme circumstance.
This is why the act of migration is seen as a great act of courage and sacrifice in Islam. The Prophet (pbuh) was the saddest when he left Makkah for Medina. The distance between the two holy cities may not be much. But the journey that he undertook defined the trajectory of the new faith.
Migration is hardly a modern phenomenon. For thousands of years, humanity has migrated far and wide, in search of greener pastures, a better life and often to escape poverty and persecution. We are all migrants, in some way or the other.
The Aryans, Romans, Arabs, Mongols and latter Europeans traversed the distances of thousands of miles to conquer the world. The Arab, Chinese and European seafarers and travellers went to the other side of the world in search of commerce, often taking their culture, language and beliefs with them. The partition of India and Pakistan saw history’s biggest migration.
Where would Europe have been without the riches and cheap labour sourced from its former colonies? European immigrants and conquerors colonised and created entire new nations in America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
Immigrants make America what it is today – a melting pot of a nation attracting the best of talent and expertise from around the world. America’s strength is not its military prowess but the cultural and ethnic diversity and global talent pool at its disposal. The world’s greatest economy has been powered by wave after wave of immigrants. Its Ivy League universities attract the brightest from around the world, with Indians capturing the Silicon Valley. This is also true of Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Who can ignore the role Asian workers have played in spawning the economic miracles in the Arabian Desert? The spectacular success of bustling business hubs like Dubai, Singapore and Hong Kong would be incomplete without their migrant populations. Mumbai’s tinsel dreams have long fed on the hopes and aspirations of wide-eyed migrants who once came from Peshawar and Punjab to UP, Bihar and the south.
So this growing hue and cry in the west, especially in ‘newfound’ lands like North America and Australia, over the new arrivals from the ‘Third World’ not only smacks of hypocrisy, it is also short-sighted and self-centred.
How can those who arrived in these lands as traders, invaders and asylum seekers not so long ago view the late entrants as intruders and illegals? It is no coincidence that most of the migrants today come from lands that had long been colonised and economically exploited by European powers. So there’s a kind of poetic justice in all this, if you will.
In the past few years, political and economic refugees and asylum seekers have arrived in droves and shiploads from countries that have been consumed by conflict, devastating wars and self-serving international policies – from Sub-Saharan Africa to Syria and from Arab Maghreb to Palestine and Afghanistan.
Yet western politicians would have these desperate men, women and children die on their shores rather than rescue them on humanitarian grounds. Some of them are brazen enough to call for ‘sinking the boats, to avoid losing the war on illegal immigration’.
In the words of Nicola Perugini, it’s frightening how the land without borders has come to normalise these frequent Mediterranean massacres. It claims to be a land of liberty, equality and opportunity yet allows those fleeing tyranny, war and poverty to drown on its shores. What about Europe’s humanitarian and moral responsibility?
Besides, this isn’t merely an ethical question and a one-sided bargain. If the dispossessed and disinherited seek opportunities in the west, the latter also needs new blood, vitality and a hunger for growth that the immigrants bring.
Europe and by extension the west, which has ruled the world and the global economy for the past many centuries, needs new human resources and talent to stay in the game.
With its dwindling, aging population, it cannot confront the challenges looming ahead. It is no coincidence that two of the world’s fastest growing economies – China and India – today are in Asia (the IMF predicts that India’s growth rate is set to beat that of China this year). For the first time since the Industrial Revolution, the balance of economic power is tilting eastwards. It is in the west’s own interest to open its doors to new arrivals. After centuries of exploitation, it wouldn’t kill the developed world to show some compassion for the less fortunate.
This is a humanitarian crisis and it cannot be tackled without addressing the underlying causes of conflict. To quote Prof Jagdish Bhagwati, the globalisation guru, “As people walk, fly, and swim across borders, fleeing or simply seeking a better life, and their numbers steadily rise, the time has come to address institutionally the ethics and economics of this flow of humanity instead of leaving it to the whims of individual nation states.”
Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Middle East-based columnist.