Moral indignation is in the air, and rightly so. At a time of the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War, when more migrants have died crossing the Mediterranean than any other time in recent history, the British government revoked funding for EU coastal ‘rescue’ services.Their reasoning – brutal in its intentionality – is that it encourages migrants to gamble their fates on the crossing. The UK government has decided that the greatest deterrent to migration is death itself. Lampedusa looms large over the hopes and prospects of the underdeveloped world. The dreams of a better life shall be crashed by the waves of the Med.
While this should morally outrage us, the situation is far more complex than it would first appear. With the unprecedented wave of migration that has hit the Italian coastline in the last year, a coastal service call ‘Mare Nostrum’ was formed. Mare Nostrum is an old Roman imperial and fascist term of Mussolini’s Italy, literally translated to ‘our sea.’ Funded through the European Commission, all European economies contribute to the service, accounting for around 90 percent of Mare Nostrum’s kitty. The rest, it seems, comes from Israel and Jordan. Mare Nostrum’s future seems uncertain with the EU’s FRONTEX agency taking more responsibility of policing the border.
Couched in the language of ‘search and rescue,’ the project polices the borders of Europe – already amongst the world’s most impenetrable. Throughout the EU and Israel, the position taken towards migrants is violent. Migrants represent an existential threat to the identities of the so-called ‘civilised world.’ Israel brazenly refers to African migrants seeking security in its territory as ‘infiltrators,’ threats to the purity of the settler-colonial state.
Migrants hoping for a better life across the sea find themselves on a perilous journey between Scylla and Charybdis. On the one hand, they face death at sea. On the other, they face the possibility of being picked up by border security services, detained indefinitely and in most cases deported back to their homeland. Those lucky enough to avoid capture or death enter into a world of uncertainty, where they are likely to work in unregulated labour, forming the under-class of Europe.
As European governments like the UK reduce their support for sea border control, the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) forms. MOAS is a recognized foundation based in Malta and led by Martin Xuereb, a Sandhurst graduate with 26 years of military service throughout the EU to boast. The commander on the seas – or Onboard Operations Manager in bureaucratic parlance – is Marco Cauchi, an anti-terror expert coming from 20 years of service in the Maltese Army. Ostensibly set-up for saving migrants after the Lampedusa disaster, this foundation is now filling the gap left by the states of Europe, who have left Italy overburdened by the growing migration crisis.
Watching MOAS at work is telling. Kitted-up as if they are dealing with a biohazard, the staff treat migrants as walking vessels of disease. They jetty the boat to the side of their rescue ship, take the migrants to the nearest coast and go back to port. What happens to the migrants next is not a consideration, for at least they ‘saved’ them from the perilous sea.
The spectacle of the overcrowded boat is not what it seems. To us, they seem to be a daredevil mission, so overcrowded it is as if they are just jumped upon. To those on them they are a gamble of the highest order. Whereas we would not be paid to take the risk, they often pay upwards of $1,000 to smugglers to get them a space on the criminally overcrowded vessels. So, to them, being picked up by the benevolent MOAS is not being saved, it is like dropping to the bottom of a pinball machine. Another chance lost, an even more risky gambit to attain their hopes and dreams if they have the will or ability to ante up again.
The migration crisis is not going anywhere. In our lifetimes, it is only going to get worse. The people who fill the boats do so in the hope of having the agency that life in the centres of capital provide. The underdevelopment of Africa, the protracted warfare in the Middle East and the effects of climate change are all causal factors for the crisis. And all of them have their roots in Europe and its settler colonies.
The short-term solution is bleak. The people who will risk everything to find a better life than what they’ve been born into will not be assuaged by the threat of death or detention and deportation. They remain trapped between Scylla and Charybdis. In the long-term, if Europe does not want to accommodate the masses of people who knock upon its door, it must start to address the underlying causes of migration. That entails making our governments break-away from the imposition of neo-liberal orthodoxy through international financial institutions, an active mobilization against our governments’ open and proxy warfare in the Middle East and a real attempt to limit the effects of climate change, vastly cutting our emissions. Any other solution is no solution at all.