Can Europe Make It?

After the recent tragedy in the Med, why can’t we talk about free migration?

Who can imagine a democratic energy system, food sovereignty or anything resembling a fair trade system while people are blocked by arbitrary borders and quantified in terms of economic benefit?

Morten Thaysen
25 April 2015

Wrecked boats in Lampedusa. Image: Marco Molino.Last weekend 900 people drowned in the Mediterranean. The media has been awash with stories about the catastrophe and many organisations and groups have called for an increased rescue effort in the Mediterranean. But where is the real discussion about migration?

Basically the question this week comes down to this: what should our solution have been for those drowned migrants? In my view there can only be one answer: We should have welcomed them to Europe. There is no such thing as a humane border policy. Migration has always happened and will always happen and any attempt to stop it will inevitably have catastrophic consequences. Yet the right to movement is virtually absent in the current public debate.

I’ve heard many on the right complain in the media that they feel limited in discussing migration (mainly, it seems, because what they want to say is either directly racist, xenophobic or both). But the fact of the matter is that the current debate is stuck in that framing. When almost a thousand people trying to travel to Europe drown, we should not just be discussing rescue missions. When people are imprisoned purely for being in a different country from where they grew up, we should not just talk about the economic benefits of migration. Yet we seem to be unable to actually get to the heart of the matter: people’s right to move.

Migration to Europe is not a situation in need of small policy fixes. Thousands of people die every year trying to cross into Europe and many more are held under appalling and in some cases life-threatening conditions in detention centres. Sure, we should step up the rescue effort in the Mediterranean (which the UK decided to cut only last year), but this doesn’t even begin to address the problem of migrant deaths.

Rightly it is often pointed out that many people are forced to migrate because of European policies. Imperialistic wars and the support for multinational companies’ grab of resources are obvious drivers of migration. But even if we manage to stop this (and we should do everything we can to do so) people will still migrate as they have always done. And people will still drown in the Mediterranean. Not because there aren’t ships that are good enough to make the crossing, but because EU border enforcement prevents proper ships from passing unnoticed.

And why should we stop migrants in the first place? Economic interests seems to be the one issue that always comes up in a discussion about migration these days: are migrants good for the British economy or not. It should be obvious that the lives of thousands of people crossing the Mediterranean should not be a question of UK economic stability. But somehow that is exactly what it has become to most people.

What then should we make of the migrants that are not benefitting the UK economy? Though the government increasingly tries to pick and choose who is entering the country, that will never actually be possible to do in practise. And the point is that it shouldn’t be.

The right has hijacked the discourse on migration and turned people into commodities. The left seems unable to change that. In the process we are ourselves being dehumanised and reduced to cost-benefit calculations - to either “benefit scroungers” or “ordinary hard-working people”.

Why can’t we talk about the freedom to migrate? It is impossible to imagine a democratic energy system, to envision food sovereignty or anything that would resemble a fair trade system while people are blocked by arbitrary borders and quantified in terms of their economic benefit. If we want to reclaim the control of resources from rich, corporate elites, we will have to bring back people’s freedom to move to where the resources they need are.

The recent tragedy in the Mediterranean has made it more obvious than ever: despite growing risks people continue to move - migration cannot be stopped without ever more aggressive policies. And we shouldn’t try to stop it. Migration is an issue of global justice, it’s an issue of democratic rights and the freedom of movement must be a central part our vision for the future.

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