Magazine | May 18, 2015, Issue

Drowning in Propaganda

How a migrants’ tragedy has been used and misused

In February, a rusty, decrepit freighter named the East Sea ran aground on the Côte d’Azur near Saint-Tropez. Its captain and crew fled, and when police and medical teams arrived on the vessel, they found 900 people — 250 men, 180 women, and 480 children — cooped up in the hold. Mainly Iraqi Kurds, they had paid gangs approximately $4,500 per adult and $2,000 per child to be smuggled into Western Europe. In return for this money, they had squatted in a hot, filthy, pitch-black hold, with no ventilation and almost no food or water, for a voyage of eight days. About a dozen swam ashore and disappeared.

The paragraph above is the opening of a National Review article, “Invasion of a Certain Kind,” published in the issue of April 30, 2001. Other items in its first few paragraphs included the sentencing of a Dutch truck driver for the murder of 58 Chinese illegal immigrants found dead of suffocation in Dover when his container was opened in 2000; the murder of babies thrown into the Adriatic by people-smugglers evading pursuit; and, in 1993, the discovery near New York of a ship, the Golden Venture, carrying 300 Chinese illegal migrants, who had paid between $20,000 and $30,000 each for their passage.

Most of the illegal arrivals on the Golden Venture sought asylum and did so successfully. Eight years after they were detected, none of those on the Golden Venture had returned home. We had not the heart to send back people who had sacrificed and suffered so much to flee poverty, to escape persecution, or simply to “better themselves.”

This tenderness was (and still is) reflected in a set of social and political arrangements that make it hard to deport illegal migrants: treaties on asylum, torture, human rights, etc. that the courts interpret broadly; ethnic lobbies that both shelter them and demand residence and citizenship rights for them; NGOs that provide them with legal and other forms of assistance; media that report their plight sympathetically in a discussion that rarely covers the costs of welcoming them; governments afraid of being accused of racism if they enforce immigration laws; and so on. Migrants and potential migrants now realize that once they make it across the border or the ocean into the West, they can stay indefinitely. And because much of Europe is in the “Schengen Area” — i.e., lacks internal immigration and border controls — an illegal migrant who has sneaked off a freighter in Nice or Naples at dawn can be in Paris or Berlin by nightfall.

That, essentially, is why almost 900 people drowned in April when their overcrowded boat overturned and sank in the Mediterranean. They know that if they get to Europe, they can stay there. And a sophisticated mass industry of people-smuggling has grown up around the Mediterranean to rent ships, hire crews, and sell passages to them. Not all reach their destination. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that more than 3,000 migrants died last year attempting to enter Europe by sea. No one really knows how many migrant deaths by drowning there have been in the years since the East Sea, but the IOM’s estimate is 22,000.

That is an enormous human tragedy, but there is a deep division in Europe and elsewhere on what should be done about it.

European governments, nervous of electorates that want immigration controlled, have adopted a half-hearted policy that aims to rescue migrants at sea but to keep them outside mainland Europe while processing their refugee-asylum applications in offshore locations. Its first implementation was the Mare Nostrum operation, in which the Italian navy intercepted boats and landed their migrant passengers in offshore camps on the island port of Lampedusa. But other European governments refused to admit large numbers of refugees or share the costs. Italy eventually abandoned Mare Nostrum. Following the recent mass drownings, the EU decided to give more money and more ships to a successor program called Triton. That may now mean more migrants rescued, but — since EU governments have not promised to admit more refugees — it presumably means more overcrowded offshore camps, which amounts to a different humanitarian crisis.

Hence the idea of a second policy, advocated by bien-pensant opinion and NGOs specializing in refugee and asylum rights, that the migrant vessels be intercepted and their passengers taken to safe EU ports where — in the words of Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch — “their claims can be processed in an orderly manner with all their rights respected and protected.” What that would mean, of course, is that the migrants — whether genuine refugees able to claim asylum under various treaties, or economic migrants, or in some cases jihadists and criminals — would immediately benefit from the nexus of legal, political, ethnic, and media pressures in favor of their permanent settlement. They would have overcome the main obstacle to their European dream: Having got there, they could remain there.

From the standpoint of the NGOs, of course, this would achieve a longstanding ambition: to make an end run around the restrictive immigration policy that European voters want but that progressive NGOs, human-rights lawyers, and ethnic lobbies strongly and bitterly oppose. This clash of interests was laid out clearly, indeed extravagantly, by Tanja Müller, a senior lecturer in international development at the University of Manchester, as follows:

In the forthcoming British election, anti-immigration themes feature among most major parties. British political engagement to the deaths in the Mediterranean is almost absent. This makes ‘us’ silent accomplices of what might one day be called the greatest crime in the post–Second World War world by future historians.

The humanitarian catastrophe and mass murder of refugees at sea is ultimately a direct consequence of EU politics — even if actual deaths are also caused by smugglers who in the past have locked refugees in below deck or thrown them overboard.

To assert that “we” — and she specifically includes U.K. voters — are guilty of the mass murder of people whom criminals deliberately drown because “we,” though willing to rescue them, are not prepared to admit them unconditionally to our society is silly and shameful. But Ms. Müller and others expressing similar outrage may be vulnerable to their own logic.

She is relying on consequentialism for her charge of the voters’ complicity in mass murder: The murders are “ultimately a direct consequence of EU politics.” But a third viewpoint — advanced by Rod Liddle in the London Spectator — argues that migrants are more likely to attempt the dangerous voyage across the Mediterranean if they believe they have a good chance of remaining in Europe. And the more migrants set sail, the more perish. Australian experience supports this argument: There are believed to have been almost 2,000 deaths of migrants to Australia in the past 14 years, but the number of deaths has declined to basically zero since Australia’s conservative government “stopped the boats.” Someone drunk on a cocktail of consequentialism and self-righteousness might argue that Ms. Müller is complicit in the mass murder of migrants because her urging a more liberal policy encouraged them to embark on death trips.

If all migrants were genuine refugees fleeing war in countries such as Syria, there would be a natural limit to their number. It would be practicable to settle them around the world, with each nation taking a reasonable number. But if many or most migrants are driven by economic ambition, as seems likely, then for practical purposes the pool of them is a bottomless one. Demanding that Europe admit potentially limitless numbers of migrants or be found guilty of mass murder is not a very sensible approach, especially when Britain and France already have foreign-born residents amounting to 13 and 12 percent of their populations.

The broad outlines of a sensible policy for the immediate crisis are clear: establish refugee-processing centers in North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean; obtain international agreement on the settlement of genuine refugees worldwide; negotiate with third countries on the settlement of other migrants in return for aid; seize and destroy the ships and property of the people-smugglers; above all, “stop the boats,” or, in the context of the Mediterranean crisis, return the boats to their point of departure. If Europe is not going to adopt open borders — and it plainly isn’t — it should do nothing to foster false hopes that can lead to a watery grave.

The 2001 NR article, written by me (but you knew that), was mainly a reflection on two works depicting a Third World invasion of Europe — namely, Jean Raspail’s novel The Camp of the Saints, which was hostile to it, and a BBC documentary, The March, which sympathized with it. Both are illuminating on the present crisis. The March depicts the EU as psychologically paralyzed because its bureaucrats feel justice is on the side of the invaders. Camp targets less the poverty-stricken invaders than what it calls “The Beast” — the vast retinue of progressive opinion-mongers in politics, journalism, and other institutions who come up with the same analyses, condemnations, and slogans (“We are all from the Ganges now”) to advance their civilizational masochism. Western policy should be dictated by practical goodwill and not by the neuroses of our leaders.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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