They cram into overcrowded, leaky, flimsy boats and drift out to sea, praying that a passing ship will pick them up. They hike for miles and miles across hostile environments and through intense heat while dodging murderous scoundrels and the border patrol. They camp in squalid, sprawling tent cities, eking out a living while waiting for a sign or a mode of transport to take them onwards on their journey. They are mostly young men, but there are also college students, old women, young girls, babies. They are the poor, the beleaguered, the refugees clamoring to get into Europe and make a new life for themselves to replace the one shattered back home.
Today’s Mediterranean refugee crisis should not come as much of a surprise. Europe is a bastion of freedom, prosperity, and opportunity glowing in a neighborhood dominated by repressive Arab countries and dirt-poor African ones. Turks, Algerians and Moroccans have long emigrated to Europe to take advantage of the better opportunities there. The stark contrast between rich Europe and poor West and Central Africa has long fired a migration northwards for frustrated and struggling Africans. But recent events have swelled the migrant numbers beyond what Europe is prepared for.
The biggest factor in this whole thing is the ongoing war in Syria. It is currently the world’s worst war and a hemorrhage in West Asia, spreading refugees and sectarian fervor everywhere. The government and rebels have both long since given up any restraint on involving civilians and bystanders in their conflict, putting the entire country at risk. Millions and millions of ordinary people, with no wish to die for God or democracy or their country or whatever, are packing up and leaving any way they can. Although Syria is the worst case by far, the collapse of the Arab Awakening has left Libya, Yemen and Iraq as war zones too; civilians in these countries are packing up and heading somewhere safer to avoid roaming gunmen and indiscriminate bombing.
Beyond the Arab world, other conflicts are making civilians’ lives a mess. Nigeria and its neighbors, Chad and Cameroon, continue to deal with Boko Haram, a fanatical Muslim gang of thugs who enforce traditional Islamic education and extort and oppress the areas they occupy. The Central African Republic has been at war for 2 years as Christian and Muslim militias tear each other apart with little central authority around to hold the country together. South Sudan is riven with ethnic animosity and bitter political feuding, with civilians the all-around losers. Eritrea is a tyrannical police state with infamous mandatory and indefinite conscription, inhumane working conditions, government informants, and virtually no human rights. Somalia has been a mess for decades, clawed over by fundamentalist Muslims, warlords, pirates and neighboring countries.
And then there’s poverty, the traditional motivator for moving to Europe. The Sahel, the part of Africa immediately south of the Sahara, is arguably one of the worst parts of the world: dry, hot, crowded (compared to what the land can support), destitute, politically unstable, and bereft of opportunity. People in that region are quite willing to cross the massive Sahara Desert and deal with the challenges of travel in Africa to find a job and make a decent living. The Gambia, a small country surrounded by Senegal, is losing thousands of people to migration to Europe, unable to offer anything for them but subsistence agriculture.
Refugees face a daunting task. First, the distances: Syrians have to traverse Turkey or Lebanon, Egypt and Libya. Africans have to cross the Sahara, the world’s largest desert. Simply paying the bus fare takes a lot of saving up among the desperately poor. Once in Libya — the main hub for refugees — they have to contend with the chaotic situation there, with crazed Muslim militants duking it out with a crumbling government and bloodthirsty gunmen running amok. Smuggling networks specialize in transporting refugees to the ocean, but they are usually scum, fleecing refugees of whatever money they have on them, keeping them in jail-like conditions, beating them if they complain, and occasionally raping them.
Once at sea, the smugglers usually only take the migrants a few miles away from shore, then abandon them. The boats are usually just big rafts, leaving the refugees without much of a way to steer (or a good idea of where to go). Often they rely on passing ships to pick them up and take them to Lampedusa, an Italian island between Sicily and Libya, which is now Europe’s main refugee processing center. Sometimes they don’t make it and drown. The Mediterranean crossing is so dangerous that the Greek option has gained favor this year: there are a few big Greek islands, including Lesbos, Chios and Kos, only a few miles offshore of Turkey. This is a more enticing option for Syrians and Iraqis especially, since Turkey is adjacent to those countries and relatively safe. (There are also a few Afghans who struggle their way here to escape that country’s ongoing woes.)
Refugees who wash up on Lampedusa or Lesbos usually praise God, cry, and hug their loved ones — the worst of the trip is probably over. But difficulties remain. First, there’s the hurdle of getting to the mainland. Authorities who have faced this issue for years now have arranged for ferries to take refugees from common gathering points to Athens or mainland Italy. Many refugees stay there, satisfied at having reached a developed country with reasonable security and living standards. But others itch to keep moving and head northward and westward towards richer turf — Britain, Sweden, France, Germany. Greece isn’t exactly an appealing destination for migrants looking for economic opportunity.
And here things get political. Many Europeans are shocked at the waves of foreigners washing up on their shores and want to keep as many of them away as possible. Northern Europe, comparatively far away from the fires in Libya and Syria, does not see hosting refugees as its problem. Although the Schengen Agreement in the EU allows free travel across much of Europe, so-called “asylum seekers” are often caught by police and deported if they venture past their ports of entry (mostly Italy and Greece).
This has led to the emergence of another smuggling network within Europe itself. Shady characters in the Balkans — many of whom smuggle people for more nefarious reasons — drive refugees in inconspicuous vans across borders. Border police in Macedonia are more lenient with refugees, since they’re not exactly eager to deal with big, unruly camps of foreigners determined to get across the border any way they can. Hungary is building a fence to deal with the surging tide of refugees into its territory (it’s the first country in the Schengen zone). Another tent city, “the Jungle,” has sprung up outside of Calais, the closest point in France to Britain; it’s full of migrants eager to cross the Channel and access the comfortable lifestyle and ethnic communities of the UK.
Even if refugees do make it to the Promised Land — Germany, Britain, Sweden, etc. — their troubles are not over. They must find a job, find a home, and cope with an unfamiliar country with an utterly foreign culture and language. Britain, France and Belgium, as former colonial empires, have seeded their languages around Africa and West Asia. Germany, the Netherlands, and Sweden are less familiar to foreigners. Although the German and Swedish governments are largely welcoming to immigrants (as long as they can control the flow), many locals are not. Europe is in an angry, bitter mood at the moment, and foreigners get a disproportionate amount of the blame. Right-wing movements, from PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamicization of the Occident) in Germany to the Front National in France, harangue their governments for allowing in too many foreigners and for not standing up enough to the “eurocrats” (EU bureaucrats) that ask countries to share the burden. Many of the refugees are Muslim, a religion that strikes fear into many Europeans’ hearts (and a fear borne out by sporadic terrorist attacks in countries with big Muslim minorities). Black refugees face racist stereotypes — they’re dirty, they’re criminals, they’re untrustworthy, they have AIDS, etc. Eritreans have sometimes found themselves dealing with translators who are also informants for the very government they’ve escaped.
Very few people stop to ask if accepting more people from rapidly growing parts of the world would benefit a part of the world that’s aging fast and in dire need of workers, skilled and unskilled. And it’s not like Europe hasn’t experienced Asian and African immigration before. Germany has long had a big Turkish community, the result of a managed guest worker program from the 1960s. France has many Moroccans and Algerians, the result of prolonged colonization. Britain has all kinds of foreigners, from Pakistanis to Nigerians, the legacy of its global empire. Inter-European migration has also picked up thanks to the Schengen Agreement, and migrants from poorer eastern European countries have flocked westward in search of decent education, housing, and job prospects.
Yet Europe also has other problems on its plate. The euro crisis (which will get its own blog post eventually) has sapped the EU’s energy and diverted its attention. The rich countries of the EU have already bailed out the indebted countries; voters there have no stomach for what amounts to bailing out people from outside of Europe. Many of the “refugees” that stream in on boats are illegal immigrants fleeing poverty; under international law, they’re not considered asylum-seekers. And it’s true that immigrants have also troubled European society a great deal; Muslim parts of town are often the poorest and most dangerous, and the religious and cultural gulf between Arabs and whites has bred resentment, discrimination and violence.
Refugees face a long, dangerous, expensive journey. They deal with smugglers intent on shaking them down with little regard for their safety. The Islamic State is on the prowl in Libya. Their boat trip could end in disaster. Police often beat them up and send them back. Life in refugee camps is tedious, squalid, and crowded. Europeans can greet them with racist taunts, graffiti, and in some cases, arson. Refugees who make it all the way to Britain might find themselves sent to less exciting countries like Slovakia or Bulgaria if the EU agrees on a plan to redistribute refugees more evenly around Europe.
So with all these obstacles in the way, why go? Refugees who are asked this are unambiguous: it’s better than death. In their home countries, they face starvation, torture, death, and trauma on a daily basis. I may have written a blog post about how the world is generally improving (and I stand by it!), but it’s impossible to argue that, given where they came from, refugees aren’t better off risking the long, treacherous trip overseas and the prospect of a better future for their children.