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The International Writers Magazine: Life Issues

Asylum Seekers
• Tom Kilcourse
I dislike labels attached to people, but if pushed I would confess to being a liberal of the J.S. Mill school. However, liberal or not, I am presently finding my conscience in danger of being exploited and abused by media images of migrants from Africa who have fled across the sea to Europe.

economic migrants

Many drown, many are no doubt worthy of asylum, and many have escaped the horrors of civil war. All that, I accept. I also accept that much of this would not be happening if Europeans had not bombed Libya and helped to oust Gaddafi. Nevertheless, I am troubled by questions that nobody appears to answer, or even ask, not least the UN, which appeals to Europe for a maximum humanitarian effort.

The questions were first prompted when I saw three migrants interviewed, one was Nigerian, one was Tunisian, and the other Moroccan. As far as I am aware, none of these three countries are torn by civil war. Then, on another viewing, I saw that some had crossed from Egypt, not Libya. Again, Egypt is not at war. So, the question that troubles me is ‘why did all these people head North, rather than making a safer and easier journey south, east, or west?

From Libya, where most appear to embark, a journey west would take them to Tunisia, Algeria or Morocco. To the south they would find Chad and Niger, while Egypt lies to the east. Those making the lengthy journey from Somalia to the Mediterranean Sea have travelled along the coast of the Red Sea, which offers a much narrower crossing to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.

All these countries are Islamic states, the religion of the vast majority of those trying to find asylum in nominally Christian Europe. Most of these states are not particularly poor, and as well as sharing a religion, many would find there a shared culture, ethnicity and possibly language. So, why are they bypassing these countries to enter a continent where the religion, ethnicity and language are all alien? Has the UN itself not asked these questions?

Since the first doubts emerged I have become more attentive to the kind of people making this perilous trip, and what I see only deepens my scepticism. One newspaper revealed that 46% of those arriving in Italy by boat in 2014 were Syrian or Eritrean. Others came from Libya, Somalia and other countries in crisis. I wonder if that proportion is still valid. Groups that I have seen on television news appear to contain a majority of sub-Saharan Africans, and when some were asked where they came from they answered openly that they were from Nigeria, Cameroun, Senegal, Gambia and other parts of West Africa.

Additionally, though much of the reportage focuses on the plight of women and children among the migrants, most of those I have seen are men, mostly young, with some even in their teens. When interviewed they make it clear that they are coming to Europe for ‘a better life’ and ‘greater opportunities’. In short, they are economic migrants, not refugees from some bitter civil war. Their lives are not in danger, and there is no evidence that being sent back to their countries would threaten their wellbeing, other than financially perhaps.

Now, while I admire the ‘get-up-and-go’ of these people, they are most certainly not refugees, a label commonly applied to them by the media. I suggest that they are opportunists who see the crossing from Libya as a chance to get into Europe by the back door. Were they to fly to London or Berlin, say, they know that residency and employment would probably be refused. So, mixing with refugees fleeing the horrors of Syria or Somalia seems like a neat trick.

Many of the migrants are being housed in holding camps in Italy where, hopefully, efforts will be made to distinguish economic migrants from those who have good cause to seek asylum. I say hopefully, because I am not convinced that this will happen. We know that the people traffickers have agents in Italy helping their clients, for a price, to head north from Italy by road or rail, heading for Germany, France or further. It is probably too late to sort out the fake refugees from those already beyond the holding camps.
Given the volume of traffic I am not convinced that those still held will face rigorous interrogation. Will those who claim to have been working in Libya be asked how long they were there, what work they were doing, and why they chose to make the sea crossing rather than escape home or to some other African country? Will those who came to Europe via Turkey or Egypt be asked why they did not seek asylum there, or will those conducting interviews be pressured either by politicians or ‘moralisers’ to go easy on the questioning? Will migrants be presumed to have suffered great hardship and to be traumatised, so uniformly deserving pity?

I am fully aware of the situation in Syria that is driving millions to escape the horrors if they can. They deserve sympathy and practical help. Europe must do whatever it can to help those who are genuine refugees, and to prevent their exploitation by the traffickers. However, the matter needs to be handled with a cool, rational approach. If we yield to the kind of naivety of one observer who claimed that ‘No-one wants to flee their homes, their families and friends, and their homeland’ we shall live to regret it.

We should also not fall for the ‘blame game’ in which Europe is demonised as heartless and responsible for the entire exodus. I heard France’s President Holland announce after the European summit on the problem that a meeting would be held in Malta at which African states would be asked to help. That was the first time I had heard a public announcement that Africa should be involved. Why have countries like Nigeria not sent aircraft to rescue their citizens who were working in Libya?

To those who believe that I should not be raising these issues, I can only say that I am no less compassionate than they are. However, I firmly believe that if efforts to sort genuine refugees from opportunists are not successful, we are inviting greater social and political unrest in European. Compassion is one thing, being taken for a mug is quite another. There has been much hand-wringing over the plight of those people crossing the Mediterranean from Libya and elsewhere, but are they all equally deserving of a welcome?

© Tom Kilcourse April 26th 2015

A Black and White Issue
Tom Kilcourse

...many years of being subjected to anti-racist rhetoric has affected the behaviour of the white population in Britain.

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