A new Ellis island
or tectonic flashpoint?
The death of over 300 desperate illegal immigrants by drowning near the island of Lampedusa once again pulled the spot light on the problem of migration from North Africa to Europe.
The reactions vary from horror about the number of deaths, indignation about the way these people are smuggled into Europe and calls for strict measures to prevent the would-be immigrants from entering the continent.
Beyond the human drama lies a very complex issue of political strive, fight for control of resources, religious dogma, market economics and organised crime.
Those who call for an impermeable immediate frontier to 'Fortress Europe', may want to consider few wider facts that show that stopping immigration, illegal or not, may not be in the best interest of themselves and Europe.
Since 1992, tens of thousands of immigrants have arrived at Lampedusa, an island of 20 square km with 6,000 inhabitants. It is the southernmost island of Italy and not close from the shores of Libya and Tunisia.
Most of the migrants come from sub-Saharan Africa (Ghana, Senegal, Niger, Nigeria, Eritrea, Somalia). They first passed the dessert and then went through Tunisia or Libya to the sea. After the Arab Spring there are also Tunisians, Libyans and now refugees from Syria as well.
They flee for economic and political reasons. They can reach the European shores though a network of middlemen, against high financial costs and the risk of loss of life. The people who migrate are desperate, many of the people who 'help' them are exploiting the situation in a sometimes criminal way.
Between 1892 and 1954 more than 12 million people migrated to the United States via Ellis Island. In 1907 alone there were more than a million. That was the year of the Knickerbocker Crisis, a banker's panic in which U.S. shares lost almost half of their value. Most of the immigrants were European, fleeing the continent for economic and political reasons. Many Irish, Italian and Polish people were among them and they integrated into the famous 'American melting-pot' and became part and parcel of the U.S. economic prowess, even in the years of economic downturns and high unemployment (It rose from 3% in 1907 to 8% in 1908. It was 23,6 pct in 1932 and the U.S. Had a 'Public Ledger' system of quotas for European migrants then).
In a way, Lampedusa can be seen as Europe's Ellis Island. The unemployment rate in Europe is on average 12 percent, with rates up to 27 pct in Spain, Greece and Portugal and low levels of down to 5 percent in Austria, Germany and Luxembourg. While Europe can not open its frontiers to all and sundry, there is scope for controlled immigration.
Europe bears part of the political guilt for the drawing of the frontiers in Africa, often ex-colonies that have been exploited by the colonial powers and their companies. Many a modern conglomerate has roots going back to these colonial times. Many an African country is settled with frontiers ignoring racial and tribal lines, distorted ownership rights for resources and heritage contracts drawn up by corrupt regimes with European, American, Japanese and Chinese companies.
The wars in Africa are partly due to the tensions caused by ignorant frontiers. The wars in Africa are partly about the fight for control over the resources and access to the markets. The wars in Africa are partly about religion, with a benevolent face of Islam – partly financed with oil money by Gulf Arabs – finding a fertile ground among the poorer people in the African countries, as they do in the Middle East.
Some of the people that flee Africa and the Middle East are of a Christian religion, brought to them by European missionaries and long protected by Western-funded mercenaries.
People in Europe cannot just close their eyes and close the borders.
We cannot send officials to Lampedusa with bull horns to tell migrants to go home and wait for better days in their own country, as Europe will aid improved trade relations and do its best to make a paper fist agains despotic rulers. We cannot embrace, welcome and comfort all of the migrants either. We cannot send cruise ships to the shores of Africa to prevent rickety boats from taking the sea, sent by unscrupulous human-traffickers.
So what can Europe do?
The European Union can improve the way it deals with immigrants, it can draw up quotas with a preference for people who bring skills and experience. It can ask Britain to be more involved, as many refugees just want to land on the European continent to go to Britain for language and other reasons.
Europe can also be more active in supporting democracy and fighting despotism in African countries and the Middle East. It can draw up a code of conduct for companies to be transparent about how and where they source their resources.
Pension funds and other investors, increasingly conscious of the longer-term benefits of socially responsible investment, should also ask more questions about who gets paid for what in foreign sourcing deals. Companies will always try to find the lowest cost for their input prices and the highest possible sales price. But at the moment the input prices are almost entirely financial, not environmental or social. That needs to change and is slowly changing.
Meanwhile, any European walking the streets and looking down on poor immigrants while proudly using the latest technological gimmick on the way to or from a global chain of food, coffee of fashion stores should perhaps ask themselves where these products' precious metals and other raw materials and commodities come from. From which countries and who gets the money there. Perhaps, just perhaps, they will see that there is a direct link between their consumption and the fate of migrants from Africa, and elsewhere.
Then they may realise that Lampedusa is at a fault line, like a volcano on the point of erupting, between the tectonic plates of a rich and lethargic Europe and a poor and dynamic North Africa.