Knocking on Europe’s door
Guest post by Dr Anna Notaro, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, University of Dundee
Last Friday, October 4th, was a day of national mourning in my native country, Italy. The reason was not some unpredictable ‘act of God’ or a natural calamity, but a recurrent tragedy and a preventable one. A boat full of African migrants sank off the coast of Sicily near the island of Lampedusa, only 70 miles from Tunisia. This is the latest and, given the scale (over 300 people feared dead), the worst migrant shipwreck the country has ever experienced. As a ‘privileged immigrant’ myself I have read the news reports with a particular sense of dismay. The people who lost their lives, no matter whether they were economic migrants or asylum seekers, are not simply a statistic; what the crude numbers cannot tell are the stories, the aspirations, the desperation of young men, women and children who believed that knocking on Europe’s door would secure a better future, often their survival and that of their families left behind.
Europe, for anyone fleeing from war and hunger, must appear like some kind of heaven on earth: a ‘land of opportunities’, to quote PM David Cameron’s conservative vision for Britain expressed in his party conference conclusive speech. Unfortunately the land of opportunities is not for all, and especially not for migrants if one considers the ‘returns’ pilot launched last summer. The pilot involved two vans with the slogans ‘In the UK illegally?’ ‘Go home or face arrest’ and a phone number for people to call for advice about repatriation. The government’s increasingly tough rhetoric around immigration, most probably prompted by concerns surrounding the rise of the UKIP, has been so ill advised that it has also threatened to deter thousands of the best international students from studying at UK universities.
The UK anti-immigration stance is not unique. Border fences and walls, vaguely reminiscent of pre-1989 Berlin, are rising in some US states, while in Australia the newly elected Prime Minister has promptly decided to cut foreign aid and devised a border protection plan under which the Australian navy would turn back Indonesian fishing boats carrying asylum seekers into Australian waters. It is often argued that the current atmosphere surrounding migrants is due to the tough economic times; this is certainly true, however I believe that it is only the latest stage in the progressive erosion of fundamental cultural beliefs, among which are multiculturalism and human rights. Already in March 2011 on this blog it was noted how both Cameron and Merkel declared that multiculturalism had failed. More recently, the UK Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, and the Home Secretary Theresa May have started lobbying for the UK to quit the European Convention of Human Rights, a decision that Ken Clark, the former Justice Secretary, has described as a ‘political disaster’, because it would unravel ‘fundamental liberties established under Europe’s post-second world war settlement’.
No one is advocating a European policy of completely open doors. A system of quotas, better co-ordination among the various European and international agencies and aid in loco should be implemented. Also in order to prevent other tragedies from happening there is a need for better patrolling on the North African coast. It is alarming that in the latest EU Annual Report on Immigration Lampedusa is not even mentioned among the geographical ‘pressure points’ (p.16) I am rarely in agreement with the Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano, and yet he is right when he said ‘This is not an Italian tragedy, this is a European tragedy… Lampedusa has to be considered the frontier of Europe, not the frontier of Italy’.
I also applaud Pope Francis’ comments made in Lampedusa on his first official trip outside Rome last July. During the homily the Pope called on society to overcome what he called ‘the globalization of indifference’ with regard to the frequent news reports on the deaths of the people who were trying to make the crossing. Yesterday night one of the Italian TV channels decided that the best way to commemorate the loss of so many migrant lives was not to host a useless debate but to air the movie Terraferma (2011). Set in the beautiful island of Lampedusa it tells the story of a poor family of fishermen who defy the law of the state, according to which only the local police patrol can rescue illegal immigrants at sea, and follow the traditional ‘Law of the Sea’ thus becoming unwitting criminals.
The moral dilemma that the Lampedusa fishermen, and we all, face is reminiscent of the one rehearsed in the classic tragedy Antigone by Sophocles. According to the Law of the state Antigone’s brother, viewed as a traitor, cannot be buried and yet in a scene that has lost none of its poignancy, under a bright mid-day sun Antigone wildly flings handfuls of dirt on the rotting corpse of her slain brother declaring that ‘great unwritten, unshakable traditions’ take precedence over the laws of the state. In Antigone Sophocles asks which law is greater, the gods’ or man’s; in devising our migration laws we should make sure that the moral imperative of one does not come into conflict with the cold, rational character of the other.