After hearing news of the latest drowning of migrants in the Mediterranean sea on Saturday 18 April, Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi asked, “How can it be that we daily are witnessing a tragedy?”
Why does Renzi ask, “How can it be”? As if the 950 deaths had nothing to do with the Renzi government cancelling the Italian navy’s search and rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, late last year, an operation which covered a vast expanse of the Mediterranean and in the year from October 2013 rescued 150,000 from drowning.
As if Renzi had not realised the EU replacement for Mare Nostrum would be a much smaller operation and that this would be about policing Europe’s borders, not saving lives.
And did Renzi not listen to the people of Lampedusa who have been saying Frontex Triton “security” mission was pointless, as well as pitiless? As Giusi Nicolini, Lampedusa’s governor, said “They don’t understand who they are supposed to be protecting us from. These dramatic scenes in the Mediterranean that we have been seeing for the past 20 years are of a pure humanitarian nature. People have to be saved.”
The fact is that the 950 deaths, the 400 deaths a week before, and all of the 1,750 deaths so far this year are everything to do with the European capitalist politicians. They are entirely responsible.
They didn’t put the people in flimsy wooden vessels and rusty old cargo ships, but they might as well have done.
The policy of refortifying Europe’s external borders led to the halting of the search and rescue operation. Their argument? The prospect of possibly not drowning encouraged migrants to attempt the journey. Cancelling the operation was, as one Daily Telegraph writer mordantly put it, about “drowning a migrant to save a migrant”.
Now the politicians have been forced by the sheer horror and magnitude of the latest shipwrecks to call an emergency meeting in Luxembourg; so far much ringing of hands and an agreement to do something, if only they could all agree on what that something might be.
If Tory Home Secretary Teresa May has her way no change of tack will contradict maintaining Europe’s strong borders. No softening of the line from her. Not for refugees fleeing the terror of Syria’s civil war, or for Africans who for generations have lived in conditions of mass working-class joblessness, and casual employment, vastly more immense than has ever been seen in Europe; or for Eritreans escaping modern slavery.
No softening of the line when her party is in the middle of an election campaign.
No softening of the line which has seen the proliferation of technologies of control along the EU’s external border in the last ten years. Aimed keeping out “irregular” migrants it has only succeeded in forcing migrants to take more dangerous routes into Europe.
What the politicians don’t say is that for all their sniffer dogs, identity checks and racial profiling, border controls do not keep out all migrants. All they do is sort migrants into “legals” and “illegals”, citizens and non-citizens. And capitalism, even if the capitalist politicians won’t admit it, benefits from the super-exploitation of undocumented migrants. These are some of the most dehumanised people of the working class. As one Ukrainian put it in Sans Papiers, a recent investigation of life as an undocumented migrant, “I always faced crap... at work, you know. ‘Why we need tractor for digging, we have illegal?’”
Probably the European powers will try to do something against traffickers in Libya and elsewhere. No one would oppose taking action against people who put so many people onto a boat it is certain to capsize or lock hundreds of people into the hold of such a boat so that they are certain to die?
But European state agencies cannot stop trafficking any more than they can hold back the strong economic and human forces which make people move across the world. A full search and rescue operation must be put in place.
But we also need a working-class and internationalist response.
In the UK, and throughout Europe, workers have powerful trade union organisations that have fought for a hundred and more years to raise the standards of life above meagre subsistence for their members. Those organisations can and should fight to do the same for the people who through absolute desperation make the risky and brave decision to leave their homes and families to come to Europe. That means fighting for the free movement of peoples and ending the conditions which make migration so dangerous.
Open the borders!