Halima was from Yarmouk, a suburb of Damascus besieged by both Syrian government and Islamic State forces. She was travelling with her daughter and teenage grandson, whose parents had gone missing in the war eight months earlier. I tried to talk with the boy, but he seemed shell-shocked by the shattering events that had engulfed his life. Nearby was Laura, a 25-year-old from Cameroon, pregnant after being raped in north Africa, and a young mother sold into slavery in Libya by a priest who promised to protect her after she became a Christian.
These were just three of the horror stories I heard from 414 migrants stuffed on to a 40ft boat crossing the Mediterranean last month. I met them after four hours on their sinking vessel, assisting a rescue mission funded by a wealthy philanthropic couple and supported by Médecins Sans Frontières. On the two-day journey back to sanctuary in Sicily I listened to similar stories of people fleeing brutality, conflict and violence – and yes, some searching for a better life away from harsh poverty and petty corruption in their native countries.
These are the human beings risking their lives to reach Europe’s shores, just as we might do faced with their nightmarish circumstances. A few end up in Calais hoping to reach Britain – although far less than you might suspect from the current furore.
Indeed, 18 countries in Europe face heavier pressure from asylum-seekers in terms of applications per head of population; Germany, for instance, had six times as many as Britain last year. These numbers are growing, partly due to Middle East meltdown. Yet our Government’s response to this huge humanitarian crisis has been both shameful and duplicitous.
Politicians are caught in a tough predicament, trapped between an alarmed electorate and the awkward realities of globalisation. Yet the lack of leadership and decency across Europe on one of the defining issues of our age is extraordinary, especially given the continent’s own history. The bluster and bullshit from British politicians is demeaning, whether stopping support for search-and-rescue missions on spurious grounds that saving lives lures more people, through to pretending landlords can lead efforts to curb illegal immigration.
Yet still they pose as protectors of the oppressed and poor, arguing that their generosity with taxpayer’s money is leading global efforts to solve problems that drive migration. So as people drown in their hundreds, the Prime Minister says the key is to deal with the causes rather than the consequences, the Home Secretary argues aid will help African countries develop economic and social opportunities so people stay, and the Defence Secretary insists floods of money deter mass migration by stabilising nations.
This argument that aid is some kind of panacea for this crisis is not just a red herring but a falsehood. It fosters conflict and corruption, of course. Meanwhile the majority of migrants crossing the Mediterranean last year were Syrians fleeing civil war or Eritreans escaping the most repressive regime in Africa, one so appalling it is astonishing Europe is pumping in fiscal support. Yet there is one massive flaw in their argument – for the more people are lifted out of poverty, the more likely they are to board one of those lethal boats.
Development experts have shown migration increases from Africa and Asia as household incomes rise. This makes sense, since families must risk considerable sums of money to send one of their members on the long journey to Europe. Very poor people cannot afford to move abroad. Those migrants I met paid about $1,000 for the sea crossing, and some a similar sum to make the dangerous journey across the Sahara desert. This is why many of those migrating are among the best educated in their countries; they also have the skills to find jobs abroad.
As incomes rise, more of those who might transform their lives by moving to Europe can find funds to take the gamble. This is one reason net migration from sub-Saharan Africa more than doubled in just five years – it is a by-product of the continent’s rapid economic growth. Most move within their region. As Oxford University’s Migration Observatory noted, Africa has generated surprisingly small outflows of people, given the huge economic gain on offer from migration. But then studies also find far fewer people leave developing nations than presumed by arrogant Westerners.
In pictures: Migrant boat disaster
In pictures: Migrant boat disaster
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Rescuers help children to disembark in the Sicilian harbor of Pozzallo, Italy
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A child is carried by a rescue worker as he arrives with migrants on the boat at the Sicilian harbor of Pozzallo
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A migrant is helped disembark in the Sicilian harbor of Pozzallo, Italy
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A boat transporting migrants arrives in the port of Messina after a rescue operation at sea
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Italian Coast Guard officers disembark the body of a dead migrant off the ship Bruno Gregoretti, in Valletta's Grand Harbour
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Armed Forces of Malta personnel in protective clothing carry the body of a dead immigrant off Italian coastguard ship Bruno Gregoretti as surviving migrants watch in Senglea, in Valletta's Grand Harbour
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Rescued migrants talk to a member of the Malta Order after a fishing boat carrying migrants capsized off the Libyan coast, is brought ashore along with 23 others retreived by the Italian Coast Guard vessel Bruno Gregoretti at Boiler Wharf, Senglea in Malta
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Bodies of dead immigrants lie on the deck of the Italian coastguard ship Bruno Gregoretti in Senglea, in Valletta's Grand Harbour
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Italian coastguard personnel in protective clothing carry the body of a dead immigrant off their ship Bruno Gregoretti in Senglea, in Valletta's Grand Harbour
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Italian coastguard personnel in protective clothing stand on the deck of their ship 'Bruno Gregoretti', carrying dead immigrants on board, as it arrives in Senglea, in Valletta's Grand, Harbour
Technology is another key motor of migration, since television displays alluring images of wealthy lifestyles in the West while the internet provides information and discussion forums on best tactics to breach borders and avoid gangsters. Another important factor is bad governance, which is why David Cameron is right to start focusing on corruption – although this begs the question why Britain is propping up some highly corrupt and repressive countries with those golden rivers of aid. Colonial links also play a role, along with family ties, which raises interesting issues of historical payback.
Britain’s real immigration issue is economic success attracting students and legal workers. The country has escaped comparatively lightly when it comes to the crisis over refugees and illegal migrants. Yet these are global problems, not just European ones – and they are lacking any leadership or real solutions.
Those politicians pretending they can prevent the flow of inward people while peddling myths about a flow of outward money will only fuel public concerns rather than prevent them.Reuse content