"Worse things happen at sea," so the idiom goes. It's intended to be comforting. This week, however, the proverb should relieve no one. An estimated 900 refugees traveling on a fishing boat from Libya bound for Italy died as the vessel capsized. The event was neither freak nor unique—similar mass migrant drownings occurred in February and last September. The finger of blame is pointing squarely at Europe for its failure to aid refugees desperate enough to risk death on smuggler boats to escape war-torn and poverty stricken states like Libya, Syria, and the Sudan. Worse things do happen at sea.
The warm Mediterranean waters claimed the lives of 3,279 migrants last year, and projected deaths for 2015 dwarf this figure. The Mediterranean risks becoming "a vast cemetery," the High Commissioner of the UNHCR noted this week. We are in the midst of the largest wave of mass migration since the Second World War. For European leaders convening this week to address the humanitarian crisis, the focus will be policy: Whether to use military interventions to stop the illegal traffickers providing deadly passage to migrants, and whether to reinstate a replacement for Italy's now retired search-and-rescue program, Mare Nostrum, which saved up to 100,000 lives at sea last year. Policy matters, but the problem runs deeper and lays blame at the feet of every global power, not just Europe. This is a problem of economics and this is a problem of racism.
It gives lie to Europe's projected identity as an inclusive liberal project. Or, viewed otherwise, the Mediterranean tragedies highlight that Europe is indeed a Liberal project (in terms of capital-L Liberalism), rooted in the deification of free trade and open markets (compared to the overly-broad colloquial use of “liberal” to generally mean efforts towards social justice and equality). Europe's Liberalism, opening borders to the flows of global capital, renders access to European states no easier for those too poor and vulnerable to afford safe passage. In fact, the economic assumptions underpinning the European project have, through their failures, deepened the crisis for migrants seeking a place of greater safety in the EU.
The Eurozone Crisis has bolstered a rotten current of far-right nationalism in the continent. France's extreme right party, Front National, won 24 of France's 74 seats in last year's European Parliamentary elections, for example. The party's platform is xenophobia and racism, packaged as anti-immigrant French protectionism. Were this fascist party to win in France's 2017 elections, they promise to bring immigration rates to a twentieth of their current size. Germany's (albeit marginal) Pegida party commands tens of thousands to anti-immigration rallies. Euro-skeptics urging tighter national borders reflect the very sort of mentality that saw Mare Nostrum retired as a policy: cruelty and a refusal to truly understand refugee desperation.
The idea behind ending Mare Nostrum is that, without the rescue operation in place, fewer refugees would risk deadly sea journeys from Libya to Italy in the knowledge that no safety net would be in place. This is Liberalism at its most vicious—the assumption that rational risk-benefit analysis will always trump pain, fear, and desperation. But, as the Guardian's Patrick Kingsley importantly exposed this week, for many refugees, circumstances are so terrible that it is unthinkable that worse things happen at sea. Kingsley discovered from smugglers in Libya that the end of Mare Nostrum did not slow demand for passage to Europe.
One Syrian refugee told the Guardian reporter, "Even if there was a government decision to drown the migrant boats, there will still be people going by boat because the individual considers himself dead already…I don’t think that even if they decided to bomb migrant boats it would change peoples’ decision to go.” The man was wanted in Syria, could not get a passport from the Syrian embassy in Europe and thus couldn't travel legally. "Even if he could, most Arab countries are no closed to Syrians," Kingsley noted.
The migrant crisis is a European problem, not a U.S. problem because of proximity. If death in the Mediterranean is a risk, smuggling refugees across the Atlantic is an assured death trap. But the U.S. cannot wash its hands—over a decade of war in the Middle East, as well as U.S.-NATO led regime change in Libya without concern for humanitarian consequences, helped produce the crises from which refugees are fleeing. It's true that the U.S. is the world's leader in the resettling of refugees, with a plan to accept 70,000 refugees this year, as in 2014.
And the U.S. cannot pat itself on the back when it comes to immigration crises. For all President Obama's platforming on the issue of helping immigrant children especially, and his executive actions to end deportations of immigrants who have been in America for five years, the nation maintains a shameful border crisis of its own. For one, the Obama administration has deported a record number of immigrants, and hundreds of immigrants and asylum-seeking families from Mexico and Central America are held in barbed-wire surrounded detention camps. "It's a variation on the same theme," Atossa Araxia Abrahamian, author of the forthcoming Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen, told me, "but deserts instead of oceans."
Short term fixes for refugee crises are urgently needed. Reinstating something like Mare Nostrum in Europe, the immediate closure of detention camps on the U.S. border. Public racist sentiment must not be countenanced in any policy formation by politicians pandering to voters. Battling smugglers and traffickers should not be the main focus—their censure-worthy practices did not alone condemn hundreds of migrants to death at sea.
The problem is a global power structure that engages in boundless war without regard for long term consequence, and a vicious state of economic inequality definitive of our century. A refugee crisis is always an economic crisis—otherwise we'd be talking about migration, not escape. If the challenge for Europe is nation state policy, the global challenge is ending structural inequality. By which I mean capitalism.