Running fast into a neighbour's knife: Mexico and the Mediterranean
“Once gunships have driven them back to their shores, boats need to be confiscated and burned on a huge bonfire.” Katie Hopkins, UK Conservative Pundit (2015)
“We understand that by withdrawing this rescue cover we will be leaving innocent children, women and men to drown who we would otherwise have saved. […] when word [got] round they will think twice about making the journey. And so eventually, over time, more lives will be saved” UK Foreign Office Minister Baroness Joyce Anelay (2014)
Days before around 900 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean Sea trying to get to Europe, Katie Hopkins commented in The Sun that such migrants are "like cockroaches", "built to survive a nuclear bomb." You are probably wondering who Katie Hopkins is. Well, I do not watch much reality TV, but apparently she has come to fame in the UK as a contestant on various television programmes, including the Apprentice and “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!”, and recently “Celebrity Big Brother.” Now she is a right-wing political pundit for a tabloid paper. Whatever her role in life, and despite her utter lack of qualification, she has an audience on matters of politics. Unfortunately, her recent comments about refugees fleeing various parts of Africa across the Mediterranean are not very far removed from the political mainstream in the US, the UK and the rest of Europe. We should make no illusions about that.
In 2014, the UK government decided it would not assist in the rescue of migrants crossing the Mediterranean to enter the EU via Italy. A note on the asylum thing. To be a refugee under the Geneva Convention and to be able to make an asylum application, a person must be outside of her country of origin, which typically means that she must reach the shores of country in which her claim will be lodged. On the high seas, migrants who are intercepted at sea by agents of Council of Europe countries are, under the European Court of Human Rights judgment of Hirsi Jamaa and Others v. Italy (2012) are deemed to be within the jurisdiction of the intercepting countries and are technically able to lodge their claims. So the rationale by the UK government is essentially that it is not illegal to let migrants die on the high seas, so long as one does not assist them in the first place. In fact, as Baroness Alenay implies, perhaps letting refugees die at sea has important material benefits for the integrity of the UK and European border system.
It must be said that many of those on boats know that they may drown. So the deterrent function of failing to assist boats in distress is unclear. By the time ships are being rescued, migrants have already faced significant risk. Some migrants are desperate to avoid dire situations, pay for passage to Europe and do not realise the extreme danger until they board the boat, as was the case with Hakim Bello, a Nigerian migrant who passed through Libya on his way to Europe on a small vessel. Bello thought the UK decision not to rescue drowning migrants was the result of far-right influence, and he was understandably surprised to realise it was the government's policy. He assigns Europe with a responsibility to rescue the dying. "All of Europe has a responsibility to stop people from drowning. It’s partly due to their actions in Africa that people have had to leave their homes. Italy is doing so much to help save refugees and it needs support. Countries such as Britain, France, Belgium and Germany think they are far away and not responsible, but they all took part in colonising Africa. Nato took part in the war in Libya. They’re all part of the problem."
In Germany, during my graduate studies in anthropology, I interviewed several activists protesting the discontinuation of a pilot programme that distributed sterile needles to inmates of Berlin prisons. The programme was based on a model of harm reduction that sought to minimise the risk of HIV and Hepatitis C infection among the intravenous drug-users within the prisons. The pilot was abandoned and three reasons were given. The first two reasons were relatively minor—the lack of statistical evidence of decreased seroconversion rates of new inmates with regards to HIV (difficult to prove for various reasons), and there was a fear that the needles would be used as weapons (despite their design and highly-controlled and supervised use). The third reason was the one that held most weight, politically. It was because drugs were illegal, and one should not send the ‘wrong message’ to inmates. This, despite the existence of needle exchange programmes outside of prisons in Frankfurt, for example. If they wanted to avoid disease in prison, drug-addicted Inmates would have to kick the habit, from one day to the next or, as one activist described to me, share contraband needles or use the thick shafts of ballpoint pens to inject drugs supplied by visitors and sometimes prison guards themselves. So drug use would persist, but it would be much higher risk, as a 'deterrent', and people in desperate situations would be asked to carry moral burden of legal legitimacy, even when their urgent needs were physical, material ones.
To be absolutely clear, allowing people to die on the high seas en route to Europe is a choice. It puts the burdens of history, its colonial logics and the resulting current geopolitical arrangements of capital on the shoulders of people who are preoccupied with trying to survive despite political structures that would rather see them floating on the waves.
Last year, current US candidate for the Democratic party nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a similar argument in a CNN interview about the immigration of children across the US-Mexican border, albeit in a slightly different context. There, while the issue concerned the fate of child migrants that had made it to the US, the rationale was the same: send the children back to violent situations (assumedly not before they are allowed to make any relevant asylum or humanitarian claims, otherwise that would introduce a whole new set of issues) and invest in more border control. At first, perhaps this seems a reasonable suggestion if one takes that stance that the US cannot solve the world’s problems, and that nations must maintain some immigration control. But just because it is the norm does not mean that it is any less violent or revolting. The survival of these children, like the deaths of migrants at sea, is clearly not the priority of the state system. In fact, their suffering enhances the integrity of border control and the state system more generally. It's basically like saying, 'you've run into my knife, it's your fault you're dead.' Katie Hopkins and Hillary Clinton are not alone— this is the normative logic of state sovereignty, responsibility and resources that take on a sharp brutality in a system of global capitalism. We can certainly do better.