Lampedusa, 9 October 2019.
A simple, moving ceremony for the people who died at sea on 7 October, took place today in the small island of Lampedusa. Only a few days ago Lampedusa commemorated the anniversary of the tragedy that occurred on 3 October 2013, when over 360 persons lost their lives in the Mediterranean waters when the fishing boat transporting around 500 people sunk a few hundred metres from the coast. Thousands of people have died in the Mediterranean Sea in the past few years in an attempt to reach Europe. What happened two days ago was only the most recent episode in this human-made, ongoing catastrophe.
According to the latest figures, at least 30 people, including an infant, lost their lives on 7 October. Many are still missing. All the 13 bodies that were initially pulled out of the sea were women. The survivors have only identified four of them.
Raised anchor in Sfax, the boat got into trouble a few miles from the coast of Lampedusa. The engine stopped working properly, and water started flooding into the bottom of the boat where a group of Sub-Saharan women were sitting with their children. The boat capsized when approached by the coast guard, pouring all the Sub-Saharans and Tunisians onboard in the water. Two Tunisian guys told me that, right before the boat capsized, they have been able to through a pregnant woman on the coast guard vessel. In the dark water, they said, it was chaos. “People who could not swim tried to grab us. They can pull you down, they make you drown,” one of them said. “The only thing you can do is to swim away and reach the vessel.”
A sense of loss pervaded today’s ceremony. Not only for the persons who didn’t make, but also for the idea of Europe, itself drowned with those who believed in it.
The anthropologist Laura Nader once asked: “Is there anything more fundamental to what makes humans human than ideas of right or wrong?” That is a good question. Every discussion about migration, borders and refugees seems to be dominated by pragmatic approaches: Is it convenient, in economic terms, for Europe to welcome high numbers of migrants? Are they really “high numbers”? Are protectionist national regulations in conflict with international law? Who is legally responsible for the boats filled with migrants in need of help in the Mediterranean? These are pertinent questions. Yet, they don’t address the core issue, which is rather a matter of right and wrong. I struggle with the thought of how anyone with a basic moral attitude towards humanity can think that it is right that some people have passports and are free to move around while others don’t even have a passport (or have a passport that “doesn’t count” in the international mobility) and are denied this basic right.
Open borders is the only possible answer to the current dismantling of the European project and, more profoundly, of ideals of solidarity, fraternity and equality. We need open borders simply because it is the right thing to do. It should not be contingent on an analysis of pros and cons, or on considerations of an economic, legal and political nature. The arrogant and violent language of a transnational class of political figures, the tyranny of financial capitalism, the disintegration of socialist ideologies, and the rising of a vulnerable underclass at the European level has transformed a matter of right and wrong into a battle among the poor. “Migrants steal our jobs”, “They receive more benefits than us”, “Italians first” (tragically reproducing Donald Trump’s deplorable motto “America first”). These discourses signal the victory of dominant classes over the subalterns. Local populations in hotspot locations like Lampedusa have shown great solidarity in the past years, often against the will of national governments. But anti-migrant sentiments seem to prevail all over Europe at this point in history. Qualitative studies have extensively demonstrated that irregular migration is a huge business for those in power and for criminal organizations. Whoever today reiterates ideologies of closed borders that hinders mobility becomes complicit in a business whose profit is made from human suffering and human exploitation.
It is always illuminating to try to explain complex things in simple ways. Now, try to explain the politics of borders to a child. How can we explain to a child that some people, who are in dire need, cannot cross a border to enjoy refuge and care in search for a better life? Unscrupolous pragmatists would say that you do that by explaining the child that we have to protect “us” first, that we have to secure jobs for ourselves first, and that this is “our land”. I have deep concerns about who that child will be tomorrow.