First came Fortress Europe and a refugee and migration regime that prioritized secure borders over humanitarian concerns or human rights. These were the days when the Italian government made a deal with the Libya of Colonel Gadhafi to return any ‘boat people’ to Libya, even then a less than safe place albeit much safer than now. People were not wanted in Europe, regardless of their potential status as legitimate refugees or their motives. This made many African refugees eventually turn away from the sea and towards the dessert. Thus instead of embarking on a boat journey across the Mediterranean they turned inland and tracked through Egypt and the Sinai to Israel. After all, an Eritrean refugee in Tel Aviv said to me not so long ago, Israel was a country founded by refugees, so the plight of refugees would be understood.
That was initially partly the case when Israel gave working visas to arriving refugees from Eritrea and Sudan – even if only because the second Palestinian intifada, combined with deportations of undocumented workers mainly from Latin American countries, had created considerable shortages in certain sectors of the labour market. The journey through Sinai soon became similarly dangerous as a Mediterranean sea journey. A smuggling network quickly developed, as is always the case when there is a demand for such ‘services’. Many refugees were in due course abducted, raped and tortured by smugglers who aimed to extract money from rich relatives abroad.
Meanwhile, Israel has completed a border fence with state-of-the-art surveillance equipment and nobody enters through its land border with Sinai any longer. And those who used to live freely in Israeli cities, even if without social rights or entitlements, are summoned to Holot, a detention centre in the Negev desert, or coerced into leaving ‘voluntarily’ to a third African country if they cannot return to their homelands. In a perverse twist, an Eritrean refugee who took up this ‘offer’ to leave was recently executed together with others by Islamic State followers in Libya – an execution posted on social media for all to see. And so the story comes full circle.
Then there was ‘Lampedusa’ and a profound expression of staged shock at the multiple deaths through drowning. Those who drowned then were given European citizenship before their burials – posthumously. What lesson should we draw from this? Become a corpse and you become a rightful European citizen? That was in 2013, around two years ago. Then came the recent drowning of more than 800 people on one boat and another wave of mea culpa, combined with – among other things – a call to attack the smugglers and their boats – a policy that is likely to lead to ever more insecure boat-like vehicles entering the scramble. The graffiti on a Berlin Wall, EU kills, could not be truer.
And now other parts of the world, with South-East Asia in the limelight for the moment, follow the lessons the European example holds out, with their own twist. Many do not even let the boats land but keep them at sea, with some food, water and diesel thrown in. And we see scenes reminiscent of those captured in the painting the raft of the Medusa by French painter Géricault. It shows shipwreck survivors fighting for food and water, becoming each other’s wolf in a naked battle for survival, a painting about which Julian Barnes has probably written one of the most profound homages.
The cynical argument says that this is the best way to stop people from boarding boats in the first place. No, it is not, and we should be proud of and celebrate the core characteristic of the human race that makes people enter those perilous journeys, the capability for hope even in the darkest hours of our existence. The buzzword in the UK by all political parties currently is ‘aspiration’. Aspiration and hope lie at the heart of those boat journeys and show us the core of human ingenuity. And we simply let these harbingers of hope die. This makes us less human than any of those who perish at sea.