Our Ethical Duty is to Save Those Crossing the Med. Then We Need to Fix The Asylum System

Tragedy is not a strong enough word to refer to the situation in the Mediterranean at the moment. In April 2015 alone over 10,000 people have made the journey across the Mediterranean sea in rickety boats. More than 900 people drowned. As EU ministers met to respond to this new wave of deaths, up to 450 more migrants were rescued after running into difficulties with their boats. In the first four months of this year around 20,000 migrants have arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean. Last year over 200,000 people arrived and well over 3,000 died.

The figures are unbelievable. The ineptitude of the EU is not. But then, how do you properly deal with a crisis on this scale? The answers which have emerged in response to this can be split into two rough camps.

The first sees it as an ethical duty to rescue the migrants and bring them to European shores. Beyond anything else, people are needlessly dying and this must stop. However, it is also true that European nations have been complicit in stoking much of the violence and impoverishment of Africa and the Middle East which has led to people attempting to cross the Mediterranean. Europe must now take responsibility for its actions and deal with the consequences. The migrants should therefore not only be rescued but be given food, shelter, and the opportunity to apply for asylum in a European country of their choice.

we cannot let these people die. They must be rescued

The second camp sees this stance as a pull-factor for smugglers and migrants and believes the boats should be towed back to north Africa to send a message. Europe is not very big and even if there is space for these people the majority of migrants till now have applied for asylum in a select few relatively prosperous northern European countries – Germany, Sweden, France and the UK. This is because Europe has huge economic problems and other countries to the south and east are not attractive either socially – because they are often less used to non-European migrants – or economically – because they have huge debt crises. Europe cannot therefore manage a potentially limitless flow of migrants from the Middle East and Africa looking to claim asylum in its territory. A small number, preferably Christians, should be accepted and the rest sent away to sort out their own problems.

These solutions can be thought of as arguments advocating inclusion and arguments advocating exclusion, respectively. It’s not hard, listening to them, to see how inclusiveness translates into ethical high-ground and exclusiveness translates into cold self-interest. But this is only implied. In reality things are much more complicated.

The truth is we cannot let these people die. They must be rescued if they are in distress. Only the most naïve people would argue that cracking down on smuggling networks or somehow managing to resolve the problems within the countries of origin are solutions which can have any immediate effect. Iraq was a debacle. Libya became a debacle. Syria is a debacle, even without direct interference by the West. In short, Europe is on the front line of a situation which has no right answer. The only options are bad and worse. 

So those in favour of inclusion are right: we cannot let people die and we therefore have to rescue people and take them to Europe’s shores where they will be safe. But the exclusion camp has a point too – we simply cannot take them all – and there are many, many more who would risk everything to come. The space, the resources, the housing and the jobs are all lacking, while the social ramifications would be enormously difficult and complex. This is a simple argument, but has been subject to heavy criticism. Indeed, some argue that there is plenty of space and lots of spare resources in Europe. As mentioned previously, though, the majority of migrants apply for asylum in a few prosperous northern countries. Well, surely there is space in those countries too? Sweden, for instance, is huge. When granted asylum in any of these countries, though, migrants traditionally move to cities where there are established migrant communities and better economic opportunities. Such places also happen to have higher populations and would therefore suffer were tens of thousands more people to arrive. So this part of the inclusion argument is unconvincing.

The only gain we should be looking for is to help people

The nub of the problem is where to draw the line between inclusion and exclusion. We cannot be entirely exclusive, but if we are inclusive we need a cut-off point, if only to be sure that those migrants who are let in can be adequately taken care of and integrated. This requires honesty and pragmatism. It also requires some long-term thinking. If the heart of the problem is to be dealt with – repressive dictatorships, civil war, poverty, and ethnic and religious strife – foreign policy itself needs to change. Till now, foreign policy has been heavily informed by the realist paradigm – that the only ethical foreign policy is national self-interest because we live in an international system characterized by anarchy. This has justified all manner of destructive decisions and it needs to change. Intervention should only be done altruistically and development programmes should seek to empower people to build businesses, not to create future consumers of Western products. The only gain we should be looking for is to help people – not take their oil, install a puppet leader or create buffer states. Some may argue that it is all very well talking about ethics, but if Russia or Islamic State play the realist game they’ll be able to take advantage of us in the end. This may have some unfortunate truth to it, but it also ignores the fact that unethical regimes cannot hold onto power because the more they oppress and disrespect their own people, the more they inevitably lose legitimacy and crumble.

at a stretch a UN-EU safe-area could be set up in Libya

We know that we need to accept migrants in Europe and we also know that we have to have procedures and limits in place so that it is manageable and that current populations aren’t harmed by it. Further policy solutions could be to make it easier to apply for asylum in Europe from abroad, which would stop the need to cross the Mediterranean. Asylum applications to Europe are extremely strict, so this must be loosened. At the same time a common asylum policy must include a fair spread of asylum seekers across Europe rather than allowing them to congregate in a few prosperous but already well-populated countries. Eastern Europe would do well to sign up to this given how much of its labour force it has lost to western Europe. Numbers of asylum seekers would be calculated by a national government’s economic and institutional ability to settle and integrate them but financial incentives from the EU could be added for this. At a stretch, a UN-EU safe-area could be set up in Libya to process potential asylum seekers before they take to the seas. This way people wouldn’t be subject to peril of death and genuine asylum seekers could be separated from the more opportunistic economic migrants who have also been reported to make the Mediterranean journey.

If we can escape the strictures of the inclusion versus exclusion discussion and think about things ethically, which means being inclusive where we are able but also taking responsibility for the difficult decision as to where to draw the line of exclusion, we will be making the first steps towards a palatable approach to the terrible situation in the Mediterranean alongside attempting to grapple with its deeper causes.

More about the author

About the author

As well as a regular contributor on politics for Disclaimer, Liam has written for the New Statesman, Prospect Magazine, the Huffington Post, When Saturday Comes and the Sunday Express.

He is currently back at school completing an MA at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London.

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