Culled from The Executive
Lampedusa – the name of an island between Tunisia and Sicily, Italy, – has become the symbol for a human tragedy. One year ago, on 3 October 2013, 366 refugees from Africa and the Middle East drowned there in the Mediterranean seeking a life without war, persecution, torture, or poverty. ‘Lampedusa’ and the high number of dead on that specific day stand for many more victims and, above all, for an occurrence with global dimensions ,namely for the clash between people in need and rich Europeans.
Who are the agencies and persons that are involved in that clash? First of all, there are those ‘elites’ who create inhuman conditions that make people flee. Either they are politicians, unwilling and unable to provide prosperity for all, because they do not care for their citizens; this is the case in many African countries. Or they are dictators, clinging to their power by suppressing the ordinary people , like Afewerki of Eritrea or al Assad of Syria. Or they slaughter children and rape women in the fight for resources as militia groups do in East Congo. And there are the fanatics who kill and displace people ‘in the name of God’ for a religious ideology – Boko Haram in northern Nigeria, the ‘Islamic State’ in Syria and Iraq, and many others.
Then, the affected people despair and their only hope lies in other places. Most of them flee to neighbouring countries; only a relatively small number try their luck in Europe. Mainly the Germans refuse ‘economic refugees ’ as if it makes a difference “whether you die of starvation or of torture” (Jür gen Dahlkamp).Certainly, there are Africans who just strive for European prosperity, often sponsored by their family to make the dangerous trip through the desert and the sea. But what is the criterion for making poverty ‘inhuman’?
Unfortunately, criminal traffickers misuse the desperate situation of those who want to flee, also relying on their ignorance of the real conditions, extorting them and putting them in life endangering situations. The overcrowded boats are only one example. Finally, the refugees are stranded at Lampedusa or at other places and the European governments protect their populations, that are unwilling to give a helping hand, with ‘asylum policies.’ Of course, on the one hand, this is an unjustified statement because there are a number of European citizens who are willing to help, and governments have to seek a balance between nation al and foreign interests. On the other hand, there is indifference, ignorance, and xenophobia among Europeans; there are political parties who are elected based on their xenophobic programmes (Danish opposition parties propose to send 16,000 Somali refugees to Kenya that is already hosting 600,000); there is the opinion of those who are willing to help that more could be done. And there are very practical and pragmatic questions, for instance: How could Germany manage 300,000 or 500000 refugees? Put them in camps and would this provide them with a human life? Try to integrate them into the German society? How? What would be the social effect on that? Could such a number be financed, or better: would there be a political and a public will to do that?
Such practical questions reveal helplessness on the European side. Also the proposal to deal with the roots of the refugee problem does not promise success. Development aid of more than 50 years could not create sufficient prosperity in order to avoid ‘economic refugees.’ Could it achieve this now? On the political and ideological side, could power hungry politicians like in South Sudan or dictators like Alassad or religious fanatics like Boko Haram be convinced to treat people more humanely? Certainly not, and thus, the causes of the problem remain.
When we consider that poverty, dictators, wars, and religious conflicts have been in this world for as long as we know history, what is new in the clash of refugees and rich nations that we have been experiencing in the recent years and that is symbolized by ‘Lampedusa’? Is it a consequence of colonialism and post-colonial development aid? Of globalization with its Western features ‘West is best’? The ‘Arab spring’ including the uprising in Syria is an expression that people do no longer accept to be suppressed because they have learnt about democracy and human rights. Poverty is compared to the wealth in Europe which is propagated all over the world and considered as an aim of life. And there is a counter- movement to the (Western) globalization, represented by the Islamists; ‘Boko haram’ means: Western education is bad, sinful. Islamists in general are against Western culture; they specifically hate America. Does all this mean that the West has unwillingly, though sometimes culpably like in Iraq and Libya, caused a situation where life becomes unbearable for certain human beings and they flee and seek refuge to those who promise a bearable life?
The practical problems of European asylum policy only show the tip of an iceberg. The ‘bearable life’ as represented by Europeans includes material wealth; this has to be shared if Europeans relate the development ideology to themselves. For ‘development’ means to overcome underdevelopment, i.e. to become like Western societies; and this is not possible without sharing resources and, therefore, reducing Western wealth. But Europeans do not intend to share it with others; they want to retain it. The ‘bearable life’ also means values, among others the human rights. Under this perspective, underneath the visible ‘asylum policies,’ the attitude of Westerners towards non Westerners has to be questioned, i.e. their relationship to and their acceptance of refugees who represent alien cultures. Are fences and deportation the right answers? Obviously, ‘Lampedusa’ raises a lot of questions that go beyond politics and finances.
By Helmut Danner
Helmut Danner is author of End of Arrogance. Africa and the West – Understanding their Differences.