Lampedusa: Immigration Policy and the Death of Migrants

A guest blog from Katy Long, School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh.


The counsul banged the table and said,

“If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead”:

But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.

Refugee Blues, W.H.Auden

It is easy to be outraged at the injustices suffered by refugees at the hands of their tormentors – arbitrary arrest; torture; forced conscription; rape. Horrors unimaginable in our cosseted lives bring easy waves of sympathy – but too little self-reflection.   The drowning of 359 migrants off Lampedusa’s shores on 3 October should shatter our complacency: not because it is a shocking tragedy, but because it is a cruelly predictable one.

We know already that migrants die crossing the Mediterranean: just as we know they die of dehydration crossing the Arizona desert and of asphyxiation in the back of lorries.  Who would disagree that the smugglers who rake in billions a year selling a shoddy, dangerous, black market service to their customers are profiteering from human misery? Of course such crooks should not be in business. All this we know.

But we know too that migrants’ journeys are fuelled by a potent combination of desperation and aspiration, and that underpinning the whole irregular migrant economy is a consumer economy addicted to cheap labour. However, you can still only solve the problems you choose to see.   And far from coming up with the right answers, we are – quite deliberately – not even asking the right questions. In fact, when it comes to immigration, we are masters of doublethink. We weep at the waterlogged graves of Lampedusa’s dead, and then turn almost immediately to consider how “hostile” an environment we can craft for the UK’s “illegal immigrants”.

These new immigration laws will – as UK home secretary Teresa May has already admitted – appeal not to evidence, but to perception (or prejudice). For the idea that we can stop undocumented migration at all (let along through this set of nasty prohibitions) is selfish fantasy, built upon fragments of political hysteria.

For there is a simple truth underpinning irregular migration. The poor and the oppressed will try and move in search of work and freedom as long as world so suffused with inequalities as this one. After Lampedusa’s shipwreck, we have already seen Malta’s. More will follow. And yet still they come.  Yes, a leaking boat on the high seas is a high-stakes, desperate gamble: but when GDP per capita is $504 in Eritrea and $38,514 in the UK, when the alternative is forced marriage, forced conscription or slow starvation, wouldn’t you play on?

This is why the dead of Lampedusa are not just the victims who suffered in lands beyond the sea.  They are our victims too. In the twenty-first century, an age of unprecedented global mobility, it has never been more difficult to move legally if you are poor.  Low-skilled migrants are shut out as Western economies clamour to attract “the brightest and best”. Freedom of movement is something you have to buy, unless by fortunate accident of birth you ended up with a “good” citizenship.

This does not mean our middle class lives do not depend on cheap, foreign workers to clean our houses and paint our nails.  But it does mean we would prefer instead to draw over-simplified lines between local unemployment and immigration, rather than scrutinise the economics of exploitation that explain why many migrants will take jobs citizens won’t. And to continue to comfort ourselves with the platitude that “real” refugees aren’t economic migrants, and don’t have to sail in sinking ships. Such lines have the inconvenience of being untrue: but the advantage of allowing us to castigate both smugglers as demons and would-be migrants as “queue jumpers” and frauds, victims of their own rule breaking.

We know all this: and we know the solution too. Better asylum, long-term development – and legal migration routes. The past week has seen repeated calls – including from EU commissioner Cecilia Malmström – for coordinated action to open up legal migration routes, as well as to fix broken asylum systems stunted by institutional cultures of disbelief and long bureaucratic delays.  Yet the likelihood of such reforms happening soon is so small as to be almost non-existent.  Lampedusa is a momentary spasm of guilt.  In the long run, we prefer our migration narratives with obvious villains, nationalist slogans and a healthy dose of EU scepticism. Secure our Borders; Keep Illegals Out; War on Smugglers.  Politicians will happily parrot such phrases: after all, irregular immigrants don’t vote in marginal constituencies.

Yet in the end, smugglers are like dealers, pimps and backstreet abortionists: unsavoury characters, but ones who are simply meeting the laws of supply and demand. Declare war on them, and the prices may rise and the risks increase – but business will continue unless a safe, legal alternative is accessible. So save your scorn for a state that – like some twisted version of Auden’s poem – lauds Lampedusa’s dead as citizens, but incarcerates the living as illegal immigrants. For the politicians who this Monday will waste their time debating the absurdities “health tourism” rather than fixing the UK’s asylum system.  And in the end, for all of those here who – safe in the comforts of their own homes – continue to want to believe that this humanitarian disaster has nothing to do with the narrow, mean politics of immigration that public opinion demands.

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