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The boats aren't going away...
Migrants aren’t taking treacherous journeys in precarious dinghies because they were duped by crafty people smugglers.
Written by Noah Carl.
The Italian island of Lampedusa saw its population unexpectedly double this week, when what can only be described as a flotilla of small boats descended upon its shores. Situated in the Mediterranean roughly halfway between Tunisia and Sicily, Lampedusa finds itself on the frontline of Europe’s migration crisis.
For the past decade or so, large numbers of people from Africa and the Middle East have been arriving on the southern coast of Europe, primarily in Greece, Spain and Italy. The chart below, taken from the UNHCR, plots the number of monthly arrivals since 2015.
As you can see, there was a huge spike in 2015, after which monthly arrivals stabilised at around 20,000. There has been a slight uptick this year, with monthly arrivals reaching 37,000 in August.
Since the number of arrivals fell dramatically in the autumn of 2015 and never reached the same high level again, does this mean Europe effectively “solved” the problem? Yes and no. Yes in that the numbers clearly were brought down dramatically. No in that hundreds of thousands have continued to arrive, and none of the main factors driving them has really gone away.
The massive inflow in 2015 was different in two major ways from the ongoing inflow since 2015. First, it was overwhelmingly concentrated in Greece rather than Spain and Italy. Second, it involved migrants from the Middle East rather than Sub-Saharan Africa.
Thanks to the deal brokered between the EU and Turkey (in which the EU basically bribes Turkey with money and promises of future membership) the Eastern Mediterranean route has been largely closed. Over 800,000 migrants – mostly Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis – arrived in Greece in 2015. But since 2017, “only” 150,000 migrants have arrived in total.
The Central Mediterranean route is a different story. As the chart below indicates, the number of migrants arriving in Italy is now higher than it was in the summer of 2017, when Italy brokered a deal with the UN-backed Libyan government. In just the last three years, almost 300,000 have arrived – mainly from Sub-Saharan countries like Guinea and Ivory Coast.
As for the Western Mediterranean route, it looks much more like the Central Mediterranean route than the Eastern one. Large numbers of Sub-Saharan migrants began arriving in Spain in 2017, reaching a peak of 59,000 in 2018. And the numbers have decreased only slightly in subsequent years.
In total, more than 2.2 million migrants arrived on the southern coast of Europe between 2015 and present. An additional 23,000 have been recorded as dead or missing.
Britain, of course, has been dealing with its own small boats crisis. Since 2018, almost 100,000 migrants have crossed the English Channel from France in the hope of gaining asylum in Britain. Their most common countries of origin are Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Albania and Syria.
What can be done? For NGOs and pro-migration activists, the answer is simple: provide “legal pathways to migration” so that people aren’t forced to make perilous journeys across the sea. In other words, solve the problem by legalising it. If you’re even slightly sceptical about mass immigration, I think you’ll agree this isn’t much of an answer.
But the approach from the centre-right doesn’t make a whole lot more sense. According to Britain’s governing Conservative Party, all we need to do is “clamp down on people smugglers”. We just have to “disrupt the trafficking and exploitation networks” that “prey on vulnerable people and sell them the dream of a wonderful life”.
Similar sentiments have been echoed by EU Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen (formerly of the centre-right CDU). “They attract desperate people with their lies. And put them on deadly routes across the desert, or on boats that are unfit for the sea,” she remarked in a recent speech. We must “put an end to this callous and criminal business”.
It sounds like some oblivious migrants were sitting around not knowing what to do when dastardly people smugglers inveigled them to get on a boat and cross the sea. But that’s very far from the truth. Indeed, this may be a case where the woke are more correct than the mainstream, to quote Twitter user Covfefe Anon.
“While many smugglers may be greedy and ruthless,” writes Diane Taylor in the Guardian, “they are responding to human demand with a form of supply”. As she correctly points out: “smugglers are not the cause of the mass migration of people searching for survival and safety”.
It’s clear what the centre-right politicians are doing. Most of them don’t want to come out and say that migrants themselves are the problem because doing so would be in poor taste (and might get them denounced as far-right). Consequently, they have to make it seem like the migrants have been “trafficked” and “exploited” by nefarious “people smugglers” – who are clearly the real problem.
Centre-right politicians’ confused thinking on this issue has led them to emphasise policies of questionable long-term efficacy, like destroying the vessels that are used for crossings. As the Economist noted way back in 2015, there are a couple of practical issues with destroying such vessels. When docked they’ll be hard to distinguish from ordinary fishing boats, and once seaborne they’ll be packed full of migrants.
Attempting to stop something being brought into a country by going after the specific individuals bringing it in, or indeed their methods of transportation, is roughly the approach that Western governments have taken in the War on Drugs. And it hasn’t worked.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against destroying the boats. You just need a Plan B in case the people smugglers figure out that boats can be replaced after they’ve been destroyed. According to Frontex (the EU border agency) criminal gangs earned €330 million ferrying people into Europe between 2018 and 2020. So they’re unlikely to call it quits just because they’ve lost a few dinghies.
As in the War on Drugs, the fundamental issue is that there’s huge demand for the thing you’re trying to prevent – in this case, immigration to Western countries. Focussing your efforts on the people working to meet that demand is therefore unlikely to have much effect.
What happens when you arrest a drug kingpin? The price of drugs rises due to lack of supply, which gives others an incentive to enter the market and start selling drugs. It’s the same with people smuggling. Gaining entry to Western countries is sufficiently rewarding that there will always be a market for those who can make it happen.
Another big-brain policy espoused by the centre-right is working with social media companies to “tackle people smuggling content online”. Such content, we’re informed, includes “offers of false documents” and “discount offers for groups of people”. Yes, if we just remove the discount offers, nobody will bother trying to come here anymore.
The simple fact is that Africa and the Middle East are much poorer than Europe, and their populations are growing much more rapidly. Below are population pyramids for Europe and Africa. Bear in mind that the total population of Africa is about 80% larger than that of Europe, so this comparison understates the difference between them.
There are tens of millions of young people across Africa and the Middle East who face poverty, unemployment and instability. Unlike their parents’ generation, most of them can access the internet via cheap smartphones. Which means that images and videos of life in Europe are just a few clicks away. It’s no mystery why these young people are leaving en masse.
Migrants aren’t taking treacherous journeys in precarious dinghies because they were duped by crafty people smugglers. They are doing it because the places they live are poor, corrupt and violent – and they want to live somewhere better. The boats aren’t going away. Until our politicians understand this, there’s no hope of solving the crisis.
Noah Carl is an Editor at Aporia Magazine.
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