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.

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19 Comments on “Knocking on Europe’s door”

  1. “the globalization of indifference”

    Remind me how much the Church is worth?

    Economic report of the Holy See for the year 2000

    “For the eighth consecutive year, the operating statement for fiscal year 2000 for the Holy See closes with a net gain of 17.720 billion, equal to $8,516,000 US at the exchange rate at the end of the year of 2,080.89 lire per dollar. The total expenses were 404.378 billion and the total income was 422.098 billion…. “

  2. awjlogan Says:

    Most of the issue comes from the one-way migration. Perhaps if the numbers going both directions were roughly equal there would be less rancour on either side, but Europe cannot accommodate or support the sheer numbers coming in. Multiculturalism used to be the accommodation of small integrated communities, but now is de facto segregation with no national sense of community. Sadly, but predictably, this leads to resentment and a growing (misplaced?) feeling of injustice within the “native” population, and groups like New Dawn, BNP are the lightning rod for this.
    What to do? On your level, as a university lecturer, migration is surely a good thing (I’m in the same position) and international collaboration and influence is fantastic. However, for lower skilled jobs and communities the impact is just as surely negative: fewer jobs, “immigrants taking our benefits”, a feeling of neglect, etc. When a population feels it’s being overrun, there is no surprise that the terrible plight of economic migrants is treated with indifference and possibly even contempt.
    Frankly, I don’t know what a humane and decent approach is. I love Europe and (most of!) what it nationally stands for, but the current status quo will lead only to extremism and more deaths. Millions of people arriving simply can’t be handled, but a totally shut borders policy also isn’t feasible.

    • Anna Notaro Says:

      There are several myths surrounding the phenomenon of immigration, one of which is that immigrants compete with low skills local workers, hence the feeling of injustice etc. you mention, as this article points out the best labor economists have spent the past 25 years looking all over the world for negative effects of immigration of low skills workers and they could NOT find such effects!

      Myths grant stability and continuity to a culture, they foster a shared set of values and perspectives, and yet myths in politics are dangerous.In a speech at Yale university during the cold war John Kennedy said: “too often we hold fast to the cliches…we subject facts to a prefabricated set of interpretation.We enjoy the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought”

      Immigration, racial diversity, globalization are frightening to many, indulging in comforting myths would serve no purpose at all but obtuse denial..

      • We are often told that migrants do jobs that Americans won’t do.

        What they don’t say, is that the reason Americans won’t do those jobs is the money being paid.

        For example, as youth growing up in southern Minnesota, during summer it was common for teens to work in the fields.

        My brother and I both detasseled corn, and earned $400 to $500 per field. We were tall, so we made better money per field because we could work in fields with more mature corn.

        The work was difficult, but we did it because we could work the fields from sun-up till 8AM, then head home to shower, and off to our family store where we would then work a full day, for no pay.

        My dad (died at thirty-nine), used to remind us that we had room and board, so we were not “working for free.”

        Between machines and illegal-immigrants willing to work under the table, and governments unwilling to force companies to stop hiring illegal immigrants, those summer-time jobs at decent wages for American teens mostly disappeared.

        It’s easy to make the case that immigration doesn’t hurt the lower-economic classes when you ignore the facts to make the case.

        The main fact that is always ignored, is that Americans used to do most of the jobs illegal-immigrants now do, but not at illegal-immigrant wages.

        • V.H Says:

          That isn’t quite true here in the EU. There are relatively strong legislation to protect the lower paid. The question is is the minimum wage sufficient. Is it equal to the wage needed for a reasonable life. In general, it isn’t. Minimum wage will not without further State involvement (transfers in cash or kind) pay for a home food transport and feed a family.

          • Any legislation to protect those earning minimum wage is wiped out by not enforcing the laws on the books for hiring illegal immigrants.

            Since companies in the U.S. are rarely fined for hiring illegal immigrants, and those companies rarely pay them minimum wage, U.S. citizens are competing against wages below the lawful amount.

          • roadwax Says:

            There is no legislation in the EU to protect the lower paid. Unlike in the US where it is illegal, EU citizens may be payed on ‘zero-hour’ contracts. This forces the worker to be available for work at any hour (for free) in case their boss requires them. Being available to work for fifty hours yet only being offered ten is classified as ‘full employment’ when in fact it is dragging tens of thousands into hidden poverty. They are classified as ‘earning/being in employment’ when they are not.

      • awjlogan Says:

        Absolutely, but for most people personal experience and anecdote trumps dry reporting. For example, down here in the South East, the vast majority (or perhaps only it seems?) of cafe workers, especially in the chains, are Eastern European (obviously not illegal) and that is a hard impression to break. The article makes the same point as well. Politicians and the press have not made that case well, perhaps precisely because it doesn’t seem common sense.

  3. elioa Says:

    Europe has increasingly started favoring practical solutions, though not necessarily humanitarian ones, widely over moral perspectives.
    They are becoming above all a money-seeking union, one whose decisions are no longer deeply affected by the moral dedications of people, but rather, only their interest.
    Their concern for European culture is decreasing as they face financial crises, which has, to a great degree, caused the world to question: “Should all political unions be so monetarily driven? And has union lost its moral, cultural, and social drive?”

  4. elainecanham Says:

    The trouble with these sort of myths is that they don’t make any distinction between legal and illegal migrants. I’ve ready many academic reports which conclude that legal migrants, far from dragging a country down, bring prosperity by starting new businesses and consequently paying more tax. Many foreign students who come, tend to stay, which means an increase in the skilled workforce of their chosen country. The problem is with the exploitation of illegal migrants, and the inability of governments to deal with them in a humane and effective way.

  5. mncktp Says:

    Reblogged this on mncktp.

  6. If there is a silver lining for Africa, it is Europe’s ageing population which is already struggling to meet the rising costs of elderly care. So it makes sense for the European Union and each member state to review its immigration policy on both humanitarian and economic grounds.

  7. The UK ‘land of opportunities’ schamltz is not for the inhabitants either.

    Many commiserations. Great blog, though.

  8. gblaw Says:

    Reblogged this on gblaw's Blog and commented:
    Knocking on Europe’s door

  9. And let’s not forget how many Europeans historically migrated to other parts of the world without passports or visas.

  10. Anna Notaro Says:

    I would like to thank all those who have taken the time to read my post and the ones who, having read it it, have felt compelled to leave a reply..I personally felt compelled to write it for reasons which easily transpire from the text. Unfortunately, since the post has been uploaded at least 50 immigrants, including children, have died off the coasts of Sicily, more boats are on their way while the government has pledged to boost sea patrols. For the latest update see
    For me, however, what is at the core of the immigration debate is are the issues of human rights and fairer working conditions, issues which, as this article argues right at the end, concerns us all, no matter our race or gender!

  11. hqas Says:

    Thanks for an interesting post, it’s really encouraging to see that not all Italian’s have a limited opinion of migrants. Europe has to accept that MIGRATION , legal or illegal will not stop because of global economic-conflict issues.
    And the worst thing in Italy is that there is there is NO distinction between legal and illegal migrants. I am a legal immigrant, but I am meted the same attitude that is being dished out to boat asylum seekers (which is on it’s own very questionable) I work in migration, language but have to put up with racist attitudes and colonial attitude of “me white me master, you brown, you slave.”
    In my over-all journalist experience both in my country and in Europe, as long as migrants are cleaning roads and washing toilets that is very fine, but if they are educated and literate, they are screwed on many levels, 1. Europe has really no jobs for us, 2. we pay same taxes and 3. if we do get some sort of jobs we are given a lot of trouble and have to listen each day “how non Europeans are taking away the jobs of so called real European citizens and we are the aliens.
    Having said that, I still feel that measures can be taken on a EU level to change the dilemma of migration to unlimited opportunities.

  12. […] is almost two years exactly since my guest post on this blog, Knocking on Europe’s door, a post I felt compelled to write out of outrage and frustration at the loss of over 300 […]

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