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The paradox of migration

The world is aghast following reports of Mexican migrant children being forcibly separated from their parents and detained in cages as they make their crossing, even if illegal, into the USA. The ongoing horrors perpetrated by Donald Trump and those in his administration are added to the unceasing drownings of North-African citizens in the Mediterranean Sea as they seek passage into a seemingly more hopeful Europe. Jean Amegble, commenting on migratory patterns, argues that “there is an untold and paradoxical injustice and hypocrisy on the part of today's governments” where migrants are in some cases treated as villains and in others as allies. 

According to news reports, 2 300 children were separated from their parents as they crossed the border from Mexico into the USA. These alarming numbers speak for themselves. The separation of immigrant families in the US has been the source of much discontent, garnering international outrage.  Immigrant families, many of whom are in a desperate search for food and better living conditions for their families, are being subjected to such inhumane treatment as they attempt to cross into US territory.

On the European continent last year, more than 3 000 migrants, mostly from North Africa, lost their lives while attempting to cross the treacherous Mediterranean Sea. Days ago, it was reported that more than 300 people had lost their lives over a three-day span crossing from Libya into Italy, and in the first five months of this year alone this has been the fate of more than 1 000 migrants, all losing their lives in the Mediterranean. Nonetheless, the situation in their home territory is so dire that they would rather take the risk of losing their lives, in an attempt to cross into Europe, than live in the abysmal politico-economic state of their native countries.

Why are we witnessing such phenomena?

The multiplicity of migratory movements across the globe is not new. The human species, homo sapiens, is known to be homo mobile. This means that humans have always been famed to move and travel in search of better lands, living conditions and safety. Examples of this can be seen in the great wave of migration that took people from Europe to the Americas following the discovery of the New World, the flight of European refugees to Africa during the first and second world wars, and the explorations and exploitation of the African continent largely by Europeans and Americans in search of wealth, minerals and labour to enrich their coffers.

These migrations from Europe and the Americas to Africa, even though they took place too greedily conquer mineral resources, land-space and to expand the footprint of European and American cultures, were seen by the world powers of the day to be “right”, “reasonable” and “rational”. Whereas, today, migrations taking place from Africa to European or American countries are deemed to be “wrong”, “unreasonable” and “irrational”. The reasons that are given for this wrongful action as it is now understood to be are that these migrants are poor, economically unstable and even that they pose a threat to the national security and labour force of the countries to which they are fleeing. There is clearly something amiss, here.

There is an untold and paradoxical injustice and hypocrisy on the part of today's governments in their largely failed attempts to respond to the migrant crisis. It seems that there are two kinds or classes of migrants.

The first class is that of wealthy immigrants, who choose to leave their countries with a valid passport in hand.  Most often, these are equipped with valuable skills usually sought-after and greatly desired by the country receiving them.  They are welcomed in new lands because they are skilled and have access or are at least seen to have the potential to generate significant revenue to bolster the economy of their chosen adoptive nation.

The second class of migrants is usually associated with the lower socio-economic classes coming from the poorest countries. We often refer to these as migrants, refugees or asylum seekers. They are forced to flee their lands, secretly and in a hurry, fearing for their lives and wellbeing and those of their family. The reasons surrounding their forced exit include a lack of hope, insufficient food, the promise of greater job opportunities and to restore their loved ones to safety. These millions of desperate women, children and men, mainly flee from their countries because of armed conflicts, natural disasters, droughts, persecutions of race, gender, sex and a generalised political mayhem and instability. Many of them are given the means to evacuate in a last-hope attempt by their families, who pool their monies together to smuggle their stronger loved ones across the seas, as they dream of a new and better, but, sadly, often elusive life.

In response to this crisis, European governments are divided on the issue. While many are radically closing their borders to migrants in Italy there is a proposal that existing protection centres situated outside their national borders should be open to migrants. The motives for such a proposal are unclear but at least there are moves to respond to the exponentially growing crisis. In an attempt to find solutions to this problem, 28 European leaders met in Brussels on June 29, 2018. Sadly, no concrete resolutions or terms of action to protect and/or welcome the asylum seekers into various EU states came out of the meeting. However, after a week of deliberation, the EU leaders only managed to reach a compromise deal which either separates migrants from EU citizens or reminds them that they do not belong and have no place on European territory.

This deal effectively means that European countries have agreed to set up screening centres for migrants coming from outside of Europe. Tragically, this will likely result in the forcible removal of migrants who will be returned to North Africa, back to the very countries from which they were forced to flee. Even with this agreed plan, European leaders have still not agreed as to which countries will in fact house these screening centres. 

But, who is really to blame?

The phenomenon of migration is both a complex and a simple one. On the one hand, the complexity of the issue lies in addressing and stamping out the root causes of the phenomenon and then to step up and assume shared responsibility across the world's peoples for the most vulnerable. The migration from developing to developed countries, the movement of refugees from their countries to other African countries have been called an “infestation” and “a threat to national security and economy”. However, the human movement from developed to developing countries is seen as a “development assistance” and an “economic and financial investment”.

If the root causes of immigration are wars, hunger, ethnic tensions, droughts and other natural disasters, it is really difficult to tackle and resolve these by pouring out money or investing in those countries. It will not work because investing European and American companies have been seen to back such corruption. Added to this are bad governance and the lack of respect for human rights in our African countries.

In this vein, Pope Francis in his now much anticipated in-flight conversations with press corps stated that there is an “ugly motto in the collective subconscious that Africa must be exploited”. For him, the heart of the immigration issue lingers in the fact that many countries in Africa are being exploited by multinational companies who do not have to account to anyone. European countries are condemning the instability of African countries, while they are unwilling to act and bring an end to the economic exploitation led by them on African soils. Does this show that the lack of responsibility that was exercised in turning the African continent into a land of slaves catching up with us today?

The complexity of the issue resides also in the denial of responsibility by richer nations and the failure to bring about a change of heart and redress previous injustices. We have created walls and borders, not only physically but also within our hearts. We cannot see the suffering in the eyes of children, women and men dying in our seas and deserts because of our grave lack of compassion.

On the other hand, the simplicity of the issue lies in the suffering of human being. Only one thing matters really: the dignity of human beings. People are dying in the sea, being trafficked across countries, crying for help and mourning the losses of loved ones and basic possessions.

Their lives matter – vulnerable migrant lives matter!

For me, the issue of migration is typified by this scenario.  A wounded person lying helpless on the ground, encircled by bystanders looking down on them. Looking but not touching or motioning in any way to personally assist or even just to make the call to the emergency services. Everyone is concerned for themselves, caring only about their safety and securing their own comfort. Gradually but steadily, the wounded person worsens, loses consciousness and eventually dies. Even then, no one wants to take the courage to remove the corpse. Again, they won't even make the call to have the deceased person removed because no one wants to bear the responsibility for the lost life before them. It is as Edmund Burke said: “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men and women do nothing”.

Just do it.

According to the Greeks, there are three kinds of people in any given society. The first kind of people are the idiots. Idiots are not those who are disabled or suffering from mental illnesses. They are the egoistic, those totally private, entirely self-centred and selfish people. Idiots look only for their personal pleasure and treasure. For the greeks, these were known as the barbarians.

The second type of people is the tribespeople, those who have a tribalistic mentality, those who only care for their tribes and are not able to think beyond their tribespeople or their particular chosen groups. For them, their primary allegiance is to their tribes and their god is their tribe. Tribespeople are those that are afraid of things and of people alien to them. They are violent towards foreigners and construct walls around themselves and their groups, to fence them from any external elements outside of their direct control.

The third type of people are called citizens, they are ideal persons. Citizens are people who recognise that they are part of a commonwealth and strive for the common good. Citizens not only fight for their rights but also fight for the respect and interests of others.

We are called to be citizens in our societies, to fight for the common good. A group of Young French women and men have recently expressed that fight for the common good through the solidarity march for migrants. About 50 young people are walking from the French-Italian border of Vintimille to the French-Belgian border of Calais, a distance of 1 600km, in order to demand a better welcome, acceptance and integration for migrants and to bring about their freedom of movement. They denounce the existence of borders and see them as absurd. This is what we all are called to be – “real citizens”. We will only be citizens when we take it upon ourselves to fight for the common good and dignity of all human beings.

It is necessary for our world, and that is each one of us, to take the responsibility and welcome the migrant, the poor and the vulnerable into our hearts.

Rather than asking who should take responsibility, we should all take responsibility and do the little that we each can.

Images: Flickr 

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.