There are tears that burn and tears that heal. There are tears that are recurring because we forget why we cried them, or never knew to begin with. They come back in waves. Finally, there are the crocodile’s tears, which he sheds as he consumes his victims. They are not unreal, but they come back as shadows.
Take, for instance, the weeping of the European Commission after every spectacular disaster in the Mediterranean. For two decades, reports of capsized boats and deaths by the dozens or hundreds have been followed by somber statements from European leaders and calls for “urgent” action. This emphasis on urgency, often echoed by activists and human rights organizations, can be useful in forcing political decisions that address the most immediately distasteful aspects of a systemic problem. But by reducing that problem to a seemingly manageable scale, it can also sideline necessary considerations of its root causes. And that, in turn, can lead to bad ideas.
When nearly 400 people died en route to Lampedusa in October of 2013, Europe’s urgent response was spearheaded by the Italian government via the Mare Nostrum operation. This search-and-rescue program was recently scrapped and replaced by Operation Triton, following arguments that Mare Nostrum encouraged irregular migration by making it safer. Smaller in scope, Triton is oriented not towards protecting lives, but towards surveillance and border protection. The result of this change, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), has been a dramatic increase in deaths, while the flow of arrivals has increased only slightly according to figures from the Italian Ministry of the Interior. As sociologists have argued for years, more securitization has made migration more dangerous and done nothing to reduce the flows of people.
In response to the massive number of deaths in the Mediterranean between April 13 and 19, many have been quick to call for the return of a humanitarian search-and-rescue program like Mare Nostrum. Yet even this program, though undoubtedly more humane than Triton, was unable to prevent thousands of deaths at Europe’s southern border during its period of operation. The fact of the matter is that the border is doing exactly what it is intended to do, namely channel and protect the accumulation of global capital in the North by filtering and excluding the people from the South through bureaucracy and the selective application of violence.
It is thus misleading and counterproductive to treat the horrific deaths in the Mediterranean as the result of an uncaring administrative decision. What they are is a disturbing manifestation of the European status quo. Not a deviation, but a moment of truth in which we see that the world’s deadliest North-South border (28,000 deaths since 2000 according to the IOM) is situated in the world’s most unequal North-South border zone.
What framing the moment as an emergency does is produce a state of exception that opens the way for oppressive, reactionary legislation. European leaders seemed to have this in mind on April 23, when the Commissioner for Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Dimitris Avramopoulos announced, “Our response is clear and unequivocal. Europe is declaring war on smugglers.” He went on to announce member states’ broad support for the ten-point action plan on migration that was proposed three days earlier. Aside from promising to carry out more search-and-rescue activities, the plan allocates more funds to FRONTEX (the EU’s border control agency), extends European authority into third countries and suggests a possible military mission to capture and destroy smugglers’ boats.
This sudden shift of focus from a politically damaging humanitarian disaster to a discussion about shadowy networks of smugglers is a common rhetorical device in political discussions about irregular migration. It allows politicians to adopt a moralistic discourse that depicts people who migrate as helpless victims preyed upon by a dark and criminal enemy. But the reality is hardly so clear-cut. As Patrick Kingsley points out in a recent article for The Guardian:
Smugglers do not maintain a separate, independent harbor of clearly marked vessels, ready to be targeted by EU air strikes. They buy them off fishermen at a few days’ notice. To destroy their potential pool of boats, the EU would need to raze whole fishing ports.
It seems unlikely that European leaders are unaware of this: journalists, migration analysts and human rights organizations have argued for years that the criminalization of people smuggling may be doing more to globalize harm than prevent it. Ultimately, smugglers are simply part-time players in a transnational informal economy created around and sustained by the European Union’s failure to provide safe, legal and affordable pathways for people to seek asylum or simply try out a life in a new setting. By declaring war on them, European leaders are not just ignoring the root causes of the thousands of deaths each year in the Mediterranean, but actually threatening to make things worse by adding more of the violence and instability that is driving more and more people in the region to take increasingly desperate measures.