A rickety, overcrowded ship sinks in the Mediterranean and the long-festering problem of illegal migrants crossing into southern Europe is suddenly an emergency. The Financial Times calls the human flow into the European Union “one of the most serious challenges now facing the bloc.”
That’s saying something given the beleaguered E.U.’s many woes. But not quite enough. Just as the Greek crisis belongs to Europe, not just Greece, the migration crisis is not only Europe’s. It is everybody’s.
How so? Well, we have to get a little distance on this to understand it properly and address it effectively.
Look at this up close, as E.U. leaders did at a summit in Brussels Thursday, and you see a need to police the Mediterranean more effectively, bring order to the Libyan ports from which many migrants set out, and bust the traffickers.
We need to see this from, say, halfway to the moon looking down. Then it’s perfectly clear: Europe’s North Africa problem is the United States’ Central American and Mexican problem. Illegal immigration, south to north, is a global crisis.
One of the fated features of the 21st century is now upon us: This is the migration into the advanced democracies of the economic casualties of global political and economic structures, terms of trade, and so on that date back centuries. Empires, more or less all of them, are striking back, and it’s unlikely they’ll stop until root causes are addressed.
Schoolchildren understand that the colonial era was all about resource and labor exploitation and the creation of advantageous terms of trade for Western-made manufacturers. It wasn’t about building basic infrastructure (beyond immediate needs) or developing modern societies, mythologies notwithstanding. What SOME OF these countries did get, however, were school systems and blueprints for creating democracies and economic systems. Some, such as Singapore, have succeeded, if at a price in terms of political freedoms.
The reality few of us want to face is that the human tragedy in Africa and the Middle East is also part of the complex legacy. This is the message of the 150,000 migrants Italian sea patrols picked up in the Mediterranean in the single year they deployed. The patrols were terminated last November because the E.U. refused to pay for them and Italy couldn’t.
And this year is already the worst on record. Some 1,600 people have drowned at sea so far in 2015—900 last weekend alone.
At the Brussels summit, E.U. leaders committed to tripling spending on border protection and restoring search-and-rescue operations, while deploying military vessels to destroy traffickers and their ships. It’s important (1) to keep these commitments and (2) recognize that they are emergency stop gaps, nothing more.
Critics instantly complained that the newly announced measures aren’t enough. And they’re right.
It’s hard, and understandably so, for Europeans to talk about or act according to their responsibility for creating this crisis. The missing notion is causality. How did this come to be? What’s the history behind it?
If anything, these questions are even more complex in this hemisphere. Nonetheless, Americans need to consider them carefully with regard to the northward flows of Central Americans and Mexicans escaping poverty and violence—many of them children, as became clear when the numbers spiked last year.
An election campaign in Britain, now getting white hot, produced a case in point last week. Ed Miliband, the Labor candidate for prime minister, asserted that David Cameron, the Conservative incumbent, “bears some responsibility” for the migrant crisis because he helped depose Gaddafi in 2011 but didn’t anticipate the chaos that has followed.
“The failure of post-conflict planning has become obvious,” Miliband said in his first foreign policy speech. “David Cameron was wrong to assume that Libya’s political culture and institutions could be left to evolve and transform on their own.”
Well, he was, as almost everyone agrees, and was far from alone in his error. But Cameron came back at Miliband with a censuring whack implying that such things were simply unsayable. “People will look at these ill-judged remarks and they will reach their own conclusions,” he said just before the weekend.
It’s time the sayable gets said—on both sides of the Atlantic. We have a chance to live in a stable 21st century, the first 15 years of it notwithstanding. But big problems require big thinking, and that starts with talking about what we’re truly up against.
“What should be done?” Sir Paul Collier, a professor of politics at Oxford, asked last week in Social Europe, a thoughtful web site covering public policy. He gives half a very good answer.
Among Sir Paul’s concerns is anti-immigrant backlash—“a real and present danger of overt hostility of majority populations towards the minorities established in the E.U.,” as he puts it.
“If illegal immigration is to be tackled effectively, the incentives for it must be reduced,” he explains. “The only way to do this is to delink the control of illegality from the reduction in overall immigration. By introducing a balanced package of measures, Europe could make its controls against illegal immigration effective while being more welcoming to legitimate migrants. Toughness against illegality must be balanced by generosity.”
O.K., but if we’re truly going to own this crisis, we have to recognize the huge incentives at work in the countries from which migrants flee. And here I return to an argument made after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris last January.
The need is for a comprehensive program in the Marshall Plan line for the Middle East and North Africa. Naval vessels, border police, and the like don’t constitute anything like a solution.
Holistic, necessarily expensive strategies involving the expertise of educators, urban planners, economists, political scientists, constitutional lawyers, theologians, financiers, business investors, aid donors and officials, military officers and people in many more spheres are needed to address this at the root. Alliances are to be forged across borders and among institutions, in the West and throughout the region.
It’s too ambitious and we can’t afford it, you may say. If the 21st century doesn’t require ambitious leaders, I can’t think of another time in history that needed them more.
We won’t be able to afford not thinking in these terms much longer.
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