Europe Is a Mafia: Narratives On Sub-Saharan Migration
Sea Watch 3, Open Arms, Ocean Viking.
The names of three ships that have saved hundreds of lives in the Central Mediterranean Sea. Three ships ran by NGOs. Three ships with desperate, frightened sub-Saharan people on board for weeks. Women, pregnant women, men, children, babies. On the water, under the sun. Human beings on the verge of physical and psychological collapse.
Three ships that have consistently been denied the right to dock and disembark in an Italian port. Three ships rejected for bringing migrants and/or refugees to the nearest safe port, as international law commands. Hundreds of humans that have been denied asylum.
And it’s been difficult to hear or read a horizon-expanding narrative in the public debate. There’s been “humanitarian crisis” and “human rights” (and I agreed), and there’s been “the dangers of uncontrolled immigration” and a lot of “they’re not our responsibility.” All of this revolving around the inaction of state governments and the EU itself with regards to these specific cases. So, for a crisis that demanded an immediate response, we’ve had several narratives put in place that also moved within the range of the immediate. Even the one that usually predicts middle-term disasters for the economies of receiver countries has veered towards an emphasis on short-term social dangers (migrants rob and rape, steal our jobs, etc.)
In my view, this immediacy range adopted by both state institutions (be they run by far-right or progressive parties) and the media has reinforced an image of Europe as an involuntary victim of migration, as forcefully burdened with alien problems. A rather conveniently obscuring narrative, if you ask me. One that fits perfectly with the criminalisation of rescue organisations that, based on the accusation of human trafficking, threatens with six-or-seven-figure fines. One that fits perfectly with the tacit guilt attributed to the original societies of migrants for their presumed inherent backwardness.
This seems, thus, the appropriate time for retelling some not very pleasant truths. Because, righteous and (more or less) useful as the frameworks of human rights, the law of the sea and the treaties about refugees can be for these immediate cases, they have been functioning inside the immediacy area too. We need a wider historical and structural account to expand the human rights narrative to the reach that naturally belongs to it, far beyond the current radar. We need the right map to navigate through the questions, fears and demands of long-term plans that are being raised.
I didn’t want to write what you, dear reader, probably know, but given the attitudes being invigorated throughout Europe and the USA, it seems necessary to repeat these truths over and over, as if each repetition turned into one more crack in a crystal wall that must end up falling to pieces.
Here we go!
In one of the most intense interviews I think I’ll ever come across, Òscar Camps, Open Arms founder, expressed his conviction that there was no legal justification to not let his boat dock in an Italian port—nor legal justification either to not receive help from the Spanish government. But he remarked more than this. Here are my reformulations of his main points:
Europe’s southern border is not constituted by just its maritime boundaries. Europe’s southern border is in part located inland in non-European countries as respectful of human rights as Morocco, Turkey, Eritrea or Libya.
Europe pays these countries in exchange for migration control or, what is the same, their preventing of migrants and refugees crossing the sea to Europe. Such a system is called border externalisation.
As a result, the European southern border is partly constituted by EU-funded detention camps with horrible conditions that include violence and rape. In the case of Libya, we’re talking of militias trained as coastguards and provided with technology by the EU in a context of civil war.
Western countries in general have great interests and gains in the war and scarcity situations that force sub-Saharans to leave their homes. Wars are fought with Western arms.
European governments are not really committed with international legislations. In fact, they allow and encourage systematic human rights violations in their externalised borders, far from the view of voters. Rephrasing: Who’s actually acting against the law? Who’s the mafia now?
This is, in my opinion, a good counter-narrative because:
The EU and the West don’t appear like innocent entities charged with onerous responsibilities by third parties, as far-right, right-wing and establishment progressive story-tellers try to show. On the contrary, their part in the mechanisms that end up with people using dinghies to run away from horror is reminded.
It exposes the EU’s hypocrisy in presenting itself as a warrantor of order and security.
It challenges the image of the problem of massive migration originating simply with immigrants appearing in borders and seas.
Still, I find this narrative insufficient. Implicating Europe as an important actor in the system of horror, but just as an interested party, isn’t enough. On one hand, it still leaves room for a severe blaming of migrants and their societies for their problems. On the other hand, it ignores or forgets the importance of the role that Western countries and companies have played and continue to play in Africa.
Since the days of Christian missionaries through the whole colonial era to the current cultural and economic imperialism, the so-called West has been perhaps the primary cause of poverty and war in the places of origin of our migrant burdens.
From slaves to gas and oil to minerals, not to mention the flattering self-image as powerful saviours, Africa has been a great provider of resources for the West, at the cost of:
The disintegration of indigenous cultures
The cutting into pieces of ethnic social networks or, instead, the encouragement of strong ethnic boundaries
The imposition of a “modern” state that didn’t come with the cultural changes necessary for the identification of citizens with it, nor for a supra-ethnic national solidarity
The destruction of natural environments in the areas of resource extraction
Despite their potential for economic improvement, the generalised poverty in those areas, which has led to revolts and wars. There’s a name for this too: resource curse
Surely other important issues of which I’m not aware
Exoduses towards Western countries haven’t been triggered at certain particular locations on Earth in isolation from the rest of the world. They are, instead, the result of a long common and bloody history where the privileges of some are maintained by the exploitation of others.
As proved by the circumstances that brought about Black Lives Matter, as proved by the entrenched poverty of indigenous groups in Latin-America, many current problems that move along the axe of ethnic difference are rooted in systems of domination started centuries ago, a privilege-making machine that continues working and that elites are not willing to unplug.
And, when I speak of elites, I include privileged rich minorities in non-Western countries—allies of Western companies and governments that make sure the wheels keep turning.
Any valid narrative of migration to rich European and North-American countries should start, therefore, with an acknowledgment of the West’s ongoing responsibility for creating the very conditions for migration. That is, with Western imperialism.
P.S.: There have been two boats with desperate sub-Saharans running away from hunger, confinement and torture, from war, illness and rape, in Italian waters, near the Vatican. Has anybody heard from the Pope? I haven’t.
I was taught that I shall love my siblings and that my siblings are humanity. This Vatican silence makes me think that maybe, perhaps, possibly, sub-Saharans aren’t human.