Can Europe Make It?

Beyond Lampedusa: from the globalisation of indifference to collective mobilisation?

If we could think and mobilize globally for the environment, what exactly is it that impedes the international community from doing the same for migration?

Sarah Wolff
8 November 2013

The past decade of EU migration policies was one of ‘migration management’, based on the principles of ‘circular migration’, co-ownership and shared partnership with source countries of immigration. Yet what remains etched on our collective memory is a series of dramatic events pertaining to a collective failure, sadly epitomized by Lampedusa. In 2004, starving and thirsty migrants were abandoned in the Moroccan desert after trying to get into the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla.  In 2007, migrants were stuck on tuna nets while Malta and Libya were debating their rescuing responsibilities.  History repeats itself and the Mediterranean Sea continues to be the most deadly stretch of water in the world. Nor is this likely to stop, given the huge refugee crisis ongoing in Syria and neighbouring countries.

Lampedusa illustrates the ‘globalization of indifference’. These words resonate even with the most secular amongst us. The Pope is the first public figure calling upon the global community to take a moral stance. Has he become an unlikely avant-gardiste? Ghastly dramatic stories are being echoed in other parts of the world: drowning while crossing the Rio Grande, dying of thirst adrift on the Timor Sea to reach Australia or fleeing Cuba for a better life in Florida. But migration is still mostly treated as a national matter.

A global debate on migration is badly needed. If environment and health can mobilize the international community to fight climate change and HIV, why cannot migration lead to similar coalitions of the willing? Migration transcends states’ borders and some argue that it should be treated as a global public good. Indeed it provides huge benefits to societies and individuals. Migrants are leading entrepreneurs. In the UK, while migrants represent 8% of the population, they own around 12% of all UK SMEs.[1] Migrants’ remittances contribute to the development of their home country. In spite of the crisis, money sent back home increased by 6.3% and is expected to reach $414 billion in 2013, according to the World Bank. This is three times higher than official development aid. And yet migrants are often the main victims of electoral short-termism, a lack of integration policies and a strengthening of border controls.

Rapidly evolving migration patterns challenge states’ reluctance for more comprehensive international migration cooperation. South-south migration fluxes are today surpassing South-North migration movements. African migrants prefer to migrate to other African regions rather than to Europe. In 2010, only 2.5% of the sub-Saharan African population was living outside of the continent.[2] The private sector industry, which is increasingly involved in managing migration through border control biometrics, setting banking fees for remittances and providing employment, should also take part in this global debate. 

In spite of the work of the Global Forum on Migration and Development, UNHCR, ILO and IOM, states are still privileging national and bilateral solutions which are inappropriate to address such global issues. This is at odds with the present age of globalization, which sanctifies mobility and the cross-border freedom of movement. Even if migration covers different realities, ranging from refugees’ rights to labour migration, and different needs between sending and receiving countries, the global community lacks a proper multilateral framework to discuss migration and human mobility norms and challenges.

Naturally, this calls for political leadership. Yet, when President Chirac claimed that the ‘planet was burning’ at the 1992 Rio summit, a protocol on climate change was a utopia at times of booming economic growth. Under a coalition of the willing, at odds with business interests at the time, it took years to turn ‘eco and climate-friendly’ labels into an emblem of credibility for public institutions and enterprises. Similarly migration is a positive phenomenon for our economies, for the future of demographics, for the better understanding of cultures and is at the heart of humanity. If we could think and mobilize globally for the environment, what exactly is it that impedes the international community from doing the same for migration?


[1] European Economics and Social Committee. Preliminary draft opinion on The contribution of migrant entrepreneurs to the EU economy (own-initiative opinion Ms King)

[2] Victor, J‐C(2012). Le dessous des cartes. Itineraires geopolitiques, Tallandier.

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