People dying in the sea is no plan

Immigration is a complex issue. Simplifying it would be insulting to the challenge we have ahead of us

The German NGO Sea Eye rescued 17 people on 29 December (Photo: Sea Eye)
The German NGO Sea Eye rescued 17 people on 29 December (Photo: Sea Eye)

Immigration is perhaps the most fiery of subjects today. It divides people like no other subject does. It’s been like this for a number of years now and it will remain on the agenda for the foreseeable future. There’s many reasons for this. There is always a sense of tribalism in humans, and sometimes an island context can bring about more insularity.

There are two sides of the equation. On one side, you have people who are against all sort of immigration. They say that Malta and Europe are being “invaded” by immigrants. There’s certainly racist undertones in some of the arguments, in some other cases it’s quite explicit.
Others say that Malta cannot handle an unlimited number of immigrants. I tend to agree with that.

On the other side of the argument you have people who make economical arguments of needing more people in our workforce in order to sustain our economic growth, which is also true. Also countering this argument is the sacrosanct fact that despite all our limitations, letting people drown in the sea is not an option. I hope there’s at least agreement on that.

Let’s try to dissect the issue. Immigrants come to Europe because they see this as the land of opportunity and freedom. Some come from war-torn countries and have every right for asylum. Others come for the opportunity to work in better jobs, earning decent salaries and to live freely. This may not necessarily be the reality, but it certainly is their hope. During the Syria crisis you had a lot of asylum seekers who left home in the middle of the night because of war.

Right now, a good chunk of the immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa come to Europe for the opportunities.

In the Gaddafi-era, that regime did not allow people to leave Libyan shores in small boats. At least, it used that as a political weapon. The human traffickers were contained to a certain extent, having to find much more complicated routes. Then Libya was thrown into chaos as British and French warplanes descended on the country and liberated it from Gaddafi’s regime. At the time they were seen as bearing the flag of freedom, but there were no plans on what happens after. Like Iraq and Afghanistan, problems ensued because of that. Libya, today, is a much more complicated place but for today, let’s focus on the outcomes relating to immigration.

Today, human traffickers are working around the clock in Libya. Desperate people pay anywhere up to €1,000 for a space in a poorly-built boat. The conditions and treatment in Libya are ghastly for these people who are trying to leave for Europe. Women are raped countless times. Men are tortured. Guantanamo Bay is a five-star hotel compared to some Libyan prisons. They detain these people with no right, no courts, no lawyers.

They just throw them into overpopulated jails like animals. They live in conditions described by human rights groups as “atrocious”. So when people try to leave Libya, they’re trying to leave from hell. There certainly is no incentive to stick around. Anywhere in Europe will do. No rat-infested detainment camp in Europe is worse than the abyss that is Libya for these people.

Here lie the first problems. Malta cannot be left alone to deal with a humanitarian crisis that was created by others. It simply makes no sense. Libya, or parts of it, are what they are because others intervened. You can dispose of a dictatorship with bombs, but the what-happens-after is the challenge.

Once the dust settles, is there a plan? Most people, in the case of Libya, would say there wasn’t one.

If we continue to dissect the issue, we face another important question. Why does someone from central Africa leave their home, travel across the largest tracts of desert land in the world, face torture and rape, to come to Europe? The truth is that Europe is indeed the land of opportunity for many, but there has to be a strong contrast for it to be so worthwhile.

The truth is that the countries of origin of most immigrants are failed states. Their governments and countries are ridden with corruption, violence and abuse. So they leave, like many of you who are reading this would.

In the 80s and 90s there was a conscious effort to bring Africa to its strength. But 10 years after a financial crisis that threatened to blow away entire countries, Europe, the US and the Western World have sort of given up on Africa. At least the help and attention now is not what it used to be. Countries like China are making some strategic investment in Africa, but the focus there is logistics.

Despite this, I believe that the only solution is economic growth in Africa. Only this will not persuade people to leave everything and embark on dangerous journeys for freedom. Foreign aid to Africa has had its elements of failures.

So where do you even start to tackle such a huge problem? Europe may have the answer. The forefathers of the European Union had foreseen a similar inequality issue in Europe. Thirty years ago we had European countries that were miles behind others. There was a huge inequality gap between one and the other. Perhaps not the magnitude between Europe and Africa, but there were certainly differences between France and some Eastern European countries in terms of GDP and infrastructure. So how did we minimise this inequality? France, Germany and Sweden didn’t just sign cheques to these countries to rebuild. It was slightly more complicated, but ruthlessly efficient.

We created a structure where the European Union rewarded these countries for every positive step they’ve taken.

Countries like Romania and Bulgaria, at the time, were not in a position to reap the rewards of the union unless they managed to tick the right boxes. Today they’re known as the Copenhagen criteria. Membership requires that a candidate country has achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights, respect for and protection of minorities, the existence of a functioning market economy as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union.

I think this structure works in bringing about change and equality. Elevating neighbouring countries also helps those indirectly investing in it, because growth and more trade is good for everyone. Today countries like Romania and Bulgaria are reaching higher levels in terms of quality of life, infrastructure, the economy and well-being. The EU can be a leader in this - it can open the door for African countries to grow and prosper, under certain conditions. Perhaps not as far as freedom of movement rights for people or membership, but certainly in terms of trade and market access.

And the conditions should not be strictly financial, but include good governance and things like freedom of expression and human rights. I can think of North African nations who already would be well-positioned for this. Those that do not want to partake are free to do so, but if the benefits are good there’s certainly incentives.

What there is now in terms of trade deals works to a certain extent, but increasing the benefits substantially in terms of trade access would be a different thing altogether. If we see growth in Africa, Europeans will see more trade, commerce and new opportunities for growth.

This cannot be a charity project, the EU certainly isn’t, but it’s about growth and sustainability.

This could also be this generation’s legacy, finding a way for increased growth for European countries but also create real and positive change.

Immigration is a complex issue. Simplifying it would be insulting to the challenge we have ahead of us. Solutions that can bring about long-term change, rather than short-term fixes, like some populists in neighbouring countries are proposing, will not solve it. There are no two ways about it – Europe needs to find its feet again and be ambitious in its thinking and its philosophy.