Capsized Tunisian boat not just a tragedy but a template


Dreaming hopefuls. Young people show their diplomas as they discuss plans to make an illegal boat trip in Tunisia’s Port Monastir. (Reuters)

The Tunisian boat that sank on June 2 as it set off for Europe with a load of uninvited mainly North African migrants is a tragic reminder of the fixed poles of a twisting debate. These are as follows: Recrimination and hand-wringing are almost as useless as the flimsy vessels used to traffic people across the Mediterranean and migration to Europe is not a crisis with a clear start and end point but a continuing flow of people seeking refuge from persecution, or as with the unfortunate Tunisian boat load, chasing dreams of a better life.

The issue simply must be seen for what it is if any appropriate response is ever to be formulated.

Baldly put, the issue is no longer about the deserving and undeserving, refugees versus economic migrants. Is there even an observable distinction anymore in the real or rhetorical treatment of these two categories?

Uninvited foreigners, especially Muslims and Africans, are increasingly unwelcome in Europe no matter their life story or motivation for leaving home. Even countries that signed the non-binding 1951 UN Refugee Convention are hostile to those seeking refuge. They lock up, segregate, demonise or actively seek to keep out people who fall within the convention’s remit because they left their countries due to “a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion.”

As for economic migrants such as those on the Tunisian boat bound for Europe, they are considered beyond the scope of compassion or reasonable regard. Economic migrants are deemed to be dangerously presumptuous bottom feeders who would scavenge off Europe and enervate it economically and culturally.

Even so, the reality of refugees and of economic migrants will be with us for as long as there are wars as well as badly governed countries unable to offer jobs and opportunities to their people.

It’s worth noting, however, that the hype about floods of migrants doesn’t square with statistics. First, African migration overwhelmingly occurs within Africa. An estimated 90% of migration to Europe takes place legally. The total number of international migrants — refugees and others — has remained approximately the same since 1960. Sociologist Hein de Haas, co-director of the International Migration Institute of Oxford University, puts international migration at a steady 3% of the world population for nearly 60 years.

What’s changed, however, and this is where the ill-fated Tunisian boat comes in, is the origin and direction of intercontinental migrant flows. A paper by de Haas and Mathias Czaika states: “[M]igrants from an increasingly diverse array of non-European-origin countries (are) concentrating in a shrinking pool of prime destination countries.” In other words, more people are leaving poorer, non-European countries for richer ones in Europe.

In a sense, that capsized Tunisian boat is not just a tragedy but a template. Its suffering cargo included Tunisians, Moroccans and Ivorians, as well as at least one Libyan, one Malian and one Cameroonian. In setting their sights on Europe, which de Haas and Czaika call “a global migration magnet,” those ill-starred voyagers were making a pitch to share in its accrued power and wealth. By what right, one might ask.

Economic migration is not dishonourable or illegal but neither is it a right. While one might hope for a humanitarian response to asylum seekers, economic migrants cannot expect or demand the same consideration and most people who set off from North Africa for Europe are economic migrants.

So, what is to be done? The appropriate response would ideally be for Europe to offer a limited number of temporary work visas in various sectors to facilitate legitimate economic migration. That would cut the supply lines to people traffickers and damage their business model.

In 2015, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on migration proposed exactly that. It didn’t happen then nor is it likely any time soon. European governments can hardly justify even short-term imports of dark-skinned culturally alien workers for manual, low-skilled tasks, especially when the far right is pushing a xenophobic agenda attractive to voters.

A second option is for the rich world to help poorer countries create opportunities at home. That’s a complicated, long-term process with no guarantee of success.

The problem of migration, of course, is not Europe’s alone to solve. In the absence of a solution, flimsy boats full of dreaming hopefuls will fatefully set sail.