At the end of this month I’m going to Equador to lead a walking group. In order to enter the country all I need to do is buy a plane ticket and arrive in Quito. I don’t need a visa unless I stay for more than 90 days, but if I wanted that extension I could probably get it without much difficulty. Other journeys I might undertake are similarly dependent on whether or not I can afford a plane ticket.
As of this year there were 174 countries that I can travel to as a UK citizen without a visa, out of a total of 196. The world is my oyster, and if I had the cash I could theoretically go to space too, like Richard Branson, because I am a citizen of a wealthy country, and as Herman Melville once observed ‘ In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely and without passport, whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.’
Nowadays that isn’t entirely true, because in the twenty-first century even sin needs a passport. But for those of us who have one frontiers and borders are liquid barriers that we pass through as effortlessly as a demon passing through a portal in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. For ‘bona fide’ or ‘legal’ travellers with ‘permission’ to be outside their own countries, borders are generally nothing more than cursory checkpoints, where we present our burgundy passports to bored officials, and the worst thing that can happen to us is that we might have to spend a little longer in a queue because of staff cutbacks or too many travellers arrive at once.
For those who don’t have a visa or a passport and want to come Europe, it’s a very different matter. Try to come here without money, documents or visas, and you will find that every border is a barrier and a trap that could bring your journey to an end, and every cop, soldier or border guard that you encounter could be the one who asks for your passport and arrests you because you don’t have one or because you don’t have a visa, and then you finally get to be on a plane when they deport you.
Europe’s borders have been very precisely and deviously designed to trap such people and keep them out, through a combination of paper walls, databases and physical obstacles. And it doesn’t matter why you want to come here. There are some nationalities we simply don’t want too many of.
So if you happen to be a Syrian refugee, you’ll know that European governments care about you – but only on condition that you don’t come anywhere near the continent. That means you don’t get a visa. And if you don’t have a visa and you want to come to Europe with your family to get away from the war, you will have to do it the hard way.
You might find yourself paying thousands of dollars to a sleazy crook who doesn’t give a damn about you, so that you and your wife and kids can get into a boat with hundreds of other people packed like sardines without lifebelts, with a captain who’s never been to sea and has nothing but a compass to get you to where you want to go because its too risky and too expensive for the smugglers to supply one.
Your fellow-passengers could include Palestinians from Gaza, who can’t stand to be bombed or cooped up in the world’s largest open prison any longer, or Eritreans trying to get away from the maniacal Isaias Afewerki dictatorship, or men and women from countries you’ve never been to and who you never thought you’d meet in search of work or higher wages so that they send money back to their families.
Wherever you come from, if you’re illegal then you’re nothing. No one will care about you or take care of you. No government will stand up for your rights, because you lost your rights when you left your borders. Maybe you’ll be lucky, and some NGO will help you or UNCHR will convince some government that you really are a refugee. But otherwise you are on your own.
Many people will despise you and regard you as an unwanted intruder, as a shady ‘illegal’ who represents some kind of threat to them. Some will fleece you, rob you, and maybe rape you as the price for your journey or simply because they can. If that happens, you can’t go to the police. If you’re sick or injured, very often you won’t even be able to go to a doctor or a hospital. And if you die, your family and your friends may never find out where or when it happened, and it may be that, like the migrants who drowned at Lampedusa last October who received Italian citizenship, that is only in death that you become ‘legal’ once again.
Death is an everpresent risk for those who try to cross Europe’s borders without permission, and no border is more lethal than the Mediterranean. According to a report on global migrant deaths published last month entitled Fatal Journeys by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 3,072 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean this year out of a worldwide total of 4,077 deaths worldwide. These figures are almost certainly underestimates, since many migrant deaths in the Mediterranean are not reported.
In the same week Amnesty International published its report Lives Adrift on migrant deaths in the Mediterranean, which estimated that 2, 200 migrants died between June and 15 September alone. This death toll is four times higher than what it was in the whole of last year, and has already established a new annual record.
This increase is partly due to the rise in the numbers of people crossing, primarily as a result of the Syrian civil war and the ongoing collapse of Libya. This year more than 130,000 migrants have crossed the Mediterranean, compared with 60,000 the previous year.
Few people will be surprised by the fact that most asylum applicants in Europe at present are Syrian, but despite the sympathy that they once aroused from European governments, they too are having to make the same nightmarish and often lethal journeys as Europe’s other unwanted migrants.
Last month a boat carrying 500 mostly Syrian and Palestinian passengers was deliberately rammed by their smugglers in the Mediterranean because they refused to transfer to an even smaller boat. This vile crime received very little publicity compared with the drownings that took place in Lampedusa last October, when the Pope and numerous European politicians promised to take action to ensure that this tragedy was not repeated.
More than a year later the quadrupled death toll is the most eloquent testament of Europe’s shameful failure to realise these worthy declarations. In the last twelve months, according to Amnesty, Italy has rescued 100,000 people in the largest search and rescue operation ever conducted in the Mediterranean. But Italy received no help from the European Union or any European country, and despite its efforts the death still reached record levels, to the point when the murder of 500 ‘illegals’ barely seems to have registered on the consciousness of the continent.
Europe’s governments, it seems, are more concerned with preventing putative immigrant ‘invasions’ then they are with doing anything that might make them seem to be ‘soft’ on immigration, even if that ‘softness’ includes taking concrete steps to try and stop men, women and children from dying.
More than ever we need to bring pressure on them to take action. Because passivity, handwringing and crocodile tears aren’t enough. There is a wide spectrum of actions that European governments could take, and so far they aren’t taking them.
Amnesty’s Lives Adrift is a very good place to understand the dreadful events of the last year and start thinking about what concrete actions could be taken. But beyond that we need to think about constructing an alternative to the bordered world in which only the wealthy and the privileged can go where they want to, whether for business or recreation, while those who travel for far more pressing reasons must pass through what Amnesty calls a ‘survival test’ that Europe imposes on refugees and migrants.
Because the world we have constructed is really something of a nightmare, and if we ever really come to accept it as it is, then we are all well and truly lost. .