The part of Europe which belongs to the European Union is often thought of, and described as a zone of great mobility. We, proud inhabitants of this geopolitical entity can freely travel, study, or work anywhere between Lisbon and Warsaw, Stockholm and Sofia (well, if you want to work, you should probably forget Lisbon, or Athens, or Madrid for that matter). One could almost think: never has there been such a freedom. Nothing further from the truth.
It seems to me we too often forget that the EU is a zone of persevering immobility as much as mobility. The new states accepted to the Union added more people to the pool of those whose movement cannot be restricted internally. Effectively, it means that wealthier states such as UK or Germany will have to accept yet another influx of people, and even trying to convince the potential migrants that in their Promised Land rains a lot, food is expensive, and it simply sucks may not help. As long as they’re paid three or more times more than back home, people will come. And here comes the part about immobility – these extra numbers of unrestrainable incomers from the new EU states have to be balanced out by further restrictions on migration from outside countries. For many of those who seek a better life (often for very serious reasons) it means choosing between all the risk involved in illegal human trafficking, including possible death, and life in poverty and misery in their own country. The results of such dilemmas are frequently reported in the media; as in the story about two immigrant ships sunk at the shores of the island of freedom – Italian Lampedusa. Now, if the restrictions imposed by European countries push those people towards risking all they have just to get here, I think we need to ask ourselves a question – who are those people? Are they a threat to a free and independent Europe? Are they the reason behind the economic downturn? A cause that will only worsen the dramatic situation of millions of Europeans?
It appears that, just as the ships at the shore of Lampedusa, Europe is sinking as well. Slowly and quietly, that’s true, and still with a good chances of being rescued. The engine is still on, and the stokers constantly throw buckets of water overboard. Nonetheless, sinking we are. The reasons for that are complex and many, and most probably far beyond my understanding. However, one of the often given reasons for such a state of things is the immigrant. Whether legally and not, they come to our land, take our jobs, our social benefits, and sooner or later they will ruin our country. The foreign, the unknown, the other is often blamed for all the evil, no matter how illogical and irrelevant that may be. That has happened for centuries – the Moor, the Jew, the barely legal immigrant from outside of EU, who, often speaking no English or having little or no qualification, takes jobs from decent and hardworking citizens.
The feeling I get while following recent migration debate is that western countries should protect their legacy, the prosperity achieved through centuries of hard work and steady development. Britain is presented as an entity whose wellbeing is independent of historical and geographical factors, and its status is solely an outcome of the labour of its citizens. One should not forget that current global political situation is (still) very much an outcome of the colonial relations which Europe had with pretty much all the rest of the world in the past. The gap between European and African, South American, or Asian countries is not a result of some sort of mismanagement of resources in case of the postcolonial countries. It is rather an outcome of centuries of exploitation, which depleted natural resources of many countries, at the same time often destructing their social and political structures (for a more detailed account of the links between the colonialism and present difficulties faced by South American countries I strongly recommend reading Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America. Prosperity of many countries was, to a large extent, fuelled by said exploitation, and being sorry about it won’t change much in the matter.
Now, should the borders be open everywhere and for everyone then? Obviously, something like that cannot be done overnight, and I don’t think that opening borders just like that would be a great idea. However, I believe that the events on the shores of Lampedusa should trigger a more aware and open debate about the problem of migration and the distribution of wealth across the world. The debate which, hopefully, would lead to some sort of solution that would allow more people on board of our figuratively speaking sinking ship without the need to hitch rides on the ships that sink quite literally. How would that solution look like? That I do not know. I am an anthropologist, and unexperienced one at that, so I don’t have answers. I just have questions.