The Mediterranean has been described by Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat as a "graveyard" as migrants from Africa, especially sub-Saharan Africa, seek to cross over to Europe to flee various hardships partly attributed to the legacies of Eurocentric colonial and neocolonial politics. It is estimated that over the last two decades, around 20,000 people drowned while being smuggled over. The European Union, through its "fortress" politics, centering around the notion of "security," has much to answer for in this continuous human tragedy.
We are witnessing the present rightist discourse of the "foreigners who will take our jobs" and parties that built their identity and electoral success on fear of foreigners. The criminalisation of immigrants serves to fan the flames of racism and xenophobia. The marginalization of immigrants with no access to citizenship rights and social benefits, especially rejected asylum seekers, leads them to eke out a living at the very margins of society, in the "underworld" if need be. This furthers the construction of irregular migrants as given to criminality, promiscuity etc. rather than being victims of a systemic oppressive and ultimately racist structure that encourages abuse of their vulnerability.
If anything, the target of any anger, where vulnerable working-class employees are concerned, should be those unscrupulous employers who prey on a destitute "reserve army" to considerably cut down labor costs. If one goes by hearsay, they often completely do away with these costs, at best paying the migrant a pittance. But unless these aspects of the migration issue are tackled systematically and backed by robust research by those whose historical function was that of leading the working class through a sustained process of an inclusive workers' education program spanning different media and settings, we are more likely to see a swing toward the right. And by this, I mean not only the emergence of right-wing parties, but also former leftist parties veering towards right of centre.
The dominant discourse centers around "security" on the grounds of the threat of international terrorism rather than foregrounding a person's right to seek asylum and protection, especially in cases where her or his existence is very much in jeopardy. In the majority of cases, we have bona fide breathing human subjects being criminalized for sins not of their making - sins for which Europe itself has a lot to answer. All this attests to the legacies of colonialism in Africa and the Middle East and the Western powers' collusion in the creation of situations characterized by the presence of client tyrannical regimes, not least through the supply of arms by a western-driven arms industry, and, in one specific case, a direct colonial/apartheid regime.
Maria Pisani, lecturer in Youth and community Studies and founding director of the Maltese NGO, Integra Foundation, points out that "illegal immigrant" is a nonexistent term in international law. It is bandied about by politicians to justify "illegal legalities," that is to say, the trampling over human rights, basic ones at that. It has unfortunately become part of the popular doxa. She reminds us of the 1951 Geneva Convention that recognizes a person's right to asylum and which allows for possible instances of "irregularity" in recognition of situations that lead to "forced migration." Once again, these policies should be international since we are dealing with international, global phenomena and should therefore not be allowed to be guided by the selfish interest of political and economic powerhouses in Europe and beyond.
Lawyer and activist with regard to immigrant rights, Neil Falzon, said in a recent newspaper interview in Malta Today that there are no legal means that allow "bona fide asylum seekers" to make it to Europe without placing their lives in jeopardy. He points out that flying is out of the question since no visa would be made available by any European country.
Anybody with a modicum of human compassion and who values human life dearly should be outraged by the events occurring at Europe's doorstep. We should protest to highlight the continent's shameful past with regard to treatment of ethnic minorities and sensitize other Europeans to the danger of seeing complex global imperialist issues in myopic nationalistic and mono-cultural terms. Hopefully it would sensitize other Europeans to the complex set of factors that compel people to leave the contexts in which they are rooted, and possibly love dearly, to seek a different life abroad. The reasons for doing this are many, but I would mention some here: civil wars fueled by a Western-based arms industry and exacerbation of tribal conflicts often resulting in rape and being disowned by family; the attempt among women to avoid female genital mutilation; evading religious fundamentalism; the negative effects on African farming of subsidies provided to farmers in other continents; the negative effects of climate change; an impoverished environment (the ransacking of Africa); and a colonial ideology which presents the West as the Eldorado and a context for the "good life," structural adjustment programs, the quest for better employment opportunities . . . and one can go on, perhaps falling prey to western stereotypes and constructions of "Africa."
There is however one major global reason, namely the quest for low-cost labor by corporations and other businesses alike that serves as a "push-and-pull factor." As David Bacon argues (see Illegal People. How Globalization creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants, Beacon Press, 2008), hegemonic globalization necessitates migration, but it is the same victims of this process who are rendered "illegal" and criminalized as a result, often victims of the "carceral state." By carceral state, I mean the state that punishes as part of its function in dealing with the excesses of hegemonic globalization, that is neoliberal capitalist-driven globalization or "globalization from above." Detention centers such as those decried by international and local observers over here and Fabrizio Gatti in Lampedusa are institutions that reflect the presence of a carceral state, to borrow Henry A. Giroux's term.
Neoliberal politics with their structural adjustment programs in Africa and other parts of the "majority world" have exacerbated the disparities between South and North. Colonialism has not gone away, but has taken different forms. There is recent talk about providing the right conditions for "investment" (there's the magic word) in Africa not to compel people to move elsewhere. First we ravage a continent and drain it of its resources and now we attempt to resuscitate it. In fact, I detect racist overtones in this idea, namely that Africans are to remain in Africa and do not belong elsewhere.
Adapted from this interview of Maltese scholar Peter Mayo, author of, among many other books, The Politics of Indignation (Zero Books, 2012)