The International Writers Magazine: Comment

James Skinner

‘Alvaro Dominguez, the ‘Francisco y Catalina’ quartermaster was getting ready to start up the engine of the small shrimp boat when he spotted a small craft floating aimlessly out of control in the southern sector of the Mediterranean Sea. ‘Jose!’ he shouted down at the skipper who, together with the remainder of the ten-crew members, was cleaning up the small deck after having secured the catch of the day down in the hold. ‘Quick! Get up here! There’s a boat out there with people in it!’

In seconds, Jose was up on the bridge and, binoculars in hand was focusing out to sea as Alvaro pointed in the direction of the craft. It didn’t take long for the shrimp boat to come alongside the small wooden boat crammed with dozens of sick looking human beings, who had not eaten for days and were just waiting to be rescued.

Forty-three men, eight women - two were pregnant - and a 2 year old girl, all from the African continent were soon being given warm blankets, water, and fed hot soup and a slice of bread. However, just a few miles off the coast of Malta, the shrimp boat’s ordeal had just begun.

‘Under no way can we accept the refugees!’ said a spokesman for the Maltese government, ‘we are overcrowded already and cannot accept any more ‘illegal’ immigrants!’ The dreaded word had been spoken. Despite it being a courageous and humanitarian act, the ‘Francisco y Catalina’ was not allowed to dock at Valetta to offload her ‘illegal’ cargo and carry on with her daily chores. Instead, a political row erupted involving the European Union and two of its member states, Spain and Malta over who’s responsibility it was to house yet another wave of Sub-Saharan drifters turning up at the doorstep of ‘ The Promised Land’; the continent of Europe. The incident was soon resolved but not without a great deal of heartburn for the crew and the Africans who continued to drift at sea for over two weeks living off the meagre supplies held on board. The larger issue however, of Africans on the move is a great deal more serious. It is yet another thorn in the side of the EU, whose politicians have no idea how to handle or resolve.

How did it all start?
Illegal immigration is nothing new. Just take a look at the USA that has experienced a constant flow of Latin Americans illegally crossing the boarder ever since the fall of the ‘Alamo’. The result is millions of Spanish speaking ‘without papers’ working in all kinds of trades all over the country and although the Bush administration is trying to do something about it to curb the influx, they just keep coming! The situation in Europe however, is more dramatic.

Since the dismantling of the European colonies in Africa, immigrants from all over the continent have been flocking to Europe seeking jobs and prosperity. Take Britain for example, that has received hundreds of thousands of Nigerians and Kenyans, followed by France, with thousands more from Algiers, whilst Spain and Portugal have had their fare share arriving from Morocco and Angola. The immigration policies and implementation in general has been relatively well-planned and organised with proper permits and job allocation in the respective affluent countries. However, over the past few years the rationale regarding European immigration has changed. The slowdown of the birth rate on the one hand and the increasing number of old age pensioners on the other has introduced a stumbling block for economic growth. The topic has been on the EU’s political agenda for over a decade. Most politicians and economists agree that the discrepancy between young and old could only be taken up by external human influx, i.e. more immigration. The result has been that the number crunchers have come up with idylic and utopian models integrated in grand plans to open up the doors of Europe, yet again to foreign workers and their families. But not everyone has been using the same script, and like most of the European Union planning, it is beginning to go horribly wrong.

To start with, the expansion of Europe from 15 to 25 members has once again distorted the balance of the haves and have-nots. Ah! But the gurus in Brussels had thought about that and when the big boys like Poland and Hungary with a highly skilled yet poorly paid workforce were given the ‘freedom of movement of people’ as laid down by European ruling they were with a certain proviso. The rich ‘15’ were not committed to open their doors ‘Willy Nilly’ but could do so in phases.

So what happened? As usual, each country did its own thing. Britain, Sweden and Ireland opened the doors right away and within months Polish plumbers, electricians and other handymen were crawling all over the UK. Incidentally, the predictions for migration before the new members were allowed in have been blown out of the water. A study suggested that the figures would be around 15000 workers per annum from 2004 to the end of the decade. So far, over 500000 eastern Europeans have migrated across to the west and Christmas 2006 has not yet arrived! Spain did something completely different. It ignored the problems of the north and focused on its own illegal immigrant situation, particularly the large influx of Latin Americans already in Spain. The newly elected socialist government went ahead and passed a law that allowed most of those already in the country to come forward and legalise their situation. It backfired! Although many Venezuelans, Ecuadorians and other South Americans immediately jumped on the bandwagon, a clear message was sent to ‘others’ already waiting in the wings from much larger and poorer countries mainly in Africa. The domino effect opened the European floodgates. The African tropical storm turned into a human Tsunami.

But Spain was not the only country affected by the avalanche of hungry African souls seeking refuge in rich Europe. Whereas Spain had been trying to curb those coming across the Straits of Gibraltar, mainly from Morocco and Algiers, Italy had been battling the lonely crafts that were bringing refugees from the Maghreb and the Horn of Africa, most trying to reach the island of Sicily. The Italians though, were tackling the problem from a different angle. They were concentrating their attention on Libya and Colonel Muammar Gadafi as they suspected that he had something to do with the illegal smuggling of immigrants. Good old Mr. Gadafi, on the other hand was asking for compensation for Libya’s loses as an ex-Italian colony if they wanted his cooperation.

Although the Mediterranean is now pretty well under control, partly because of the Spanish shrimp boat incident and following a tragic collision between a boatload of Africans and an Italian naval vessel with the loss of around 50 lives, the seeds have been sown for the opening of a lucrative trade. ‘People smugglers’ have emerged ready to take advantage of human hunger and vulnerability of many African nations and make money out of them. A large sign prevails along the western coast that says ‘Europe is open for business’. Suddenly a new route had been found.

Over the last month or so, an average of 100 Africans a day, supposedly from Senegal and Mauritania are making their way across the Atlantic and reaching the Spanish Canaries Islands. Most are paying their ‘transporters’ between Euros 3000 to 6000 to reach their destination. Apart from the rickety ‘shipyard’ business – hundreds of beautifully carved and psychedelically painted wooden boats are being built – the ‘passengers’ are given plenty of water and food to travel and advised that on arrival they must never state the country they came from. The obviously have no documents whatsoever. Thus, this new lot of young fit and eager to work Africans have been coming in droves and entering Spain without any problem with the authorities having no idea of their country of origin. The Canary Islands’ infrastructure has all but collapsed, the Spanish government is tearing its hair out and Europe, as usual, just looks the other way. What is the solution?

In the short term, there isn’t one. Africa is a large continent and the inverse of the ‘Call of the Wild’ is out of the bag. The tom-tom drums across the continent are loud and clear beating out the message that Europe is up for grabs. Ironically the European Union’s foundation based on Human Rights and all its ramifications is partly to blame. The whole of its legislation, it's rules, and its philosophy is founded on freedom, liberty and above all non-discrimination. Since World War II, Europeans have learned to live and grow in harmony, rebuild a continent that in the past had so often tried to destroy it, and finally achieve the ultimate goal of peace and freedom. Yet this sudden change in balance of migration could throw the whole European project into turmoil. Is there light at the end of the tunnel?

Taking into consideration the whole of the world situation, terrorism, Middle East and other warmongering areas, environmental changes and pollution, Aids and Asian flu epidemics, rich versus poor and many other international horrors, the European immigration problem may seem like small fry or yet another peg to put on the universal ‘problem board’. In many ways it is both. Lack of food, sickness and death added to political conflict will always cause migration. Africa is probably at the top of the list of sufferers. Is there any hope?

Until all these plagues are appeased if not eradicated, there is no stopping the continuing influx of illegal immigrants fighting their way into Europe. All we can do is try to accommodate them whilst we pray for a brighter future.
© James Skinner. September 2006.

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