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Lost at Sea


Those who decided to flee from oppressive regimes and go into exile 30 years ago were admired in the rich countries of the West and acclaimed in the press. The view was that refugees had “chosen freedom” — a museum in Berlin honours the memory of 136 people who died between 1961 and 1989 attempting to cross the Berlin Wall.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians, Somalis and Eritreans who are now “choosing freedom” are not welcomed with the same enthusiasm. Last month in Lampedusa, the Italian island in the Mediterranean, a crane was needed to hoist the remains of almost 300 of them, drowned after a shipwreck, on to a warship. For these boat people, the sea was their Berlin Wall, this island their grave. They were granted Italian nationality posthumously.

Their deaths seem to have given some political figures pause for thought. On 15 October, former French interior minister Brice Hortefeux said the shipwreck called for an “immediate response: our countries’ social policies must be made less attractive” (1). He apparently assumed that extravagant generosity attracted refugees to Europe: “State medical care enables people who have entered the country illegally [to receive treatment free of charge] whereas French people may have to pay up to 50 euros … The prospect of benefiting from an attractive social policy is a powerful incentive. We can no longer afford to provide that.” We do not know if Hortefeux believes that the 1.6 million Afghans who have sought refuge in Pakistan were lured there by its social services; or if 540,000 Syrians who sought asylum in Jordan escaped in order to enjoy the largesse of a kingdom where per capita income is seven times lower than in France.

Thirty years ago, the West used its prosperity and freedoms as an ideological weapon against the systems it opposed. Now some of its leaders are exploiting the distress of migrants to hasten the dismantling of social security. These manipulators of misfortune prefer to ignore the fact that the overwhelming majority of refugees worldwide are taken in by countries almost as poor as them.

When the EU is not insisting that these states, already close to collapse, “stop this unworthy business of unsafe boats” (2), it is urging them to become its buffer zone, to protect the EU from undesirables by tracking them down or holding them in camps (3). The most shameful part is that this cannot last. One day, Europe will need young immigrants to reverse its demographic decline. The arguments will be reversed, the walls will tumble, and the seas will free up. 

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