Never have there been so many bodies in the Mediterranean. There are the live ones, packed impossibly tightly onto grotesquely unseaworthy craft to make the passage from northern Africa to southern Europe; the 2014 tally is now approaching 60,000, already exceeding the total for 2013. And there are the dead ones: They’re almost impossible to count, but those who drown, die of exposure or starve almost certainly number close to 1,000 already. In October, more than 300 died in a single capsizing.
And never has a crisis been so badly misunderstood. There is a tendency to describe their arrival as “biblical,” to use the word of one Italian official this week, or apocalyptic – a plague, flood, exodus or invasion. Or, on the other hand, as something less than human: As hopeless victims, as the starving and destitute.
In reality, they are neither.
They’re not poor and desperate. I’ve spent time on the beaches of eastern Tunisia and both eastern and western Libya – the main departure points – talking to the people getting on the boats (and some time in Italy talking to those arriving). They are not the desperately poor, hopeless and starving of the Middle East and Africa. Almost all of them are middle class and fluent in European languages, and a considerable proportion are quite well educated. They’re not substantially different from the people who arrive from these countries, as legal immigrants, at airports.
This is partly because the fee to get a tiny space on one of these boats is generally between $1,500 and $2,500. That’s not refundable if the boat is washed, blown or forced back to the southern Mediterranean shore, as often happens. And you need to have plenty more money to make it to your intended destination, which is usually far from southern Italy. Only the middle class of Africa can afford this.
The sort of people who risk such sums of money on such a high-risk venture also tend to be those who have connections in Europe: Family and friends who are established in the big cities and thriving economies farther north, with job and housing prospects at hand. These are people with the education and skills to give them a chance of making it: Nobody does this in order to sit back and hope for the best.
Some are genuine refugees – at least a third of those claim to be Syrians, although most boat people are told to claim they’re from a war-torn country – but this isn’t primarily about asylum. Even those who have genuine cause for flight are people seeking a better life, with a good chance of finding it in Europe’s recovering economies.
They’re not flooding Europe. Those numbers sound terrifying, but they’re a drop in the bucket for a continent of 500 million people, one that receives two million long-term immigrants a year.
There is no refugee flood. There are now almost two million Syrians in flight (by far the largest group of refugees in the world), but Turkey and Jordan have taken hundreds of thousands each. The 15,000 to 20,000 who might cross the Mediterranean are not a big part of the problem – and, like most conflict migrants, they will likely return home some day.
There is also no population threat. The total sum of boat people over the past 20 years (most of whom have made it into Europe) has not had any measurable impact on the populations of Europe. Spain, Italy and Portugal have not been demographically affected. Their big illegal-immigrant flows are from South and Central America and from Eastern Europe; the Mediterranean traffic is tiny in comparison. It is unsavoury but far from significant in number or character.
Pretending otherwise is dangerous. “Europe cannot be considered civilized if it turns the other way at the sight of dead bodies floating in the sea,” Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi said this week (showing far more humanity than his predecessor).
There is, as the Dutch scholar Hein de Haas reports, a “myth of invasion” that has poisoned this crisis.
The horrors of Lampedusa reach our screens not because of their numbers or because of the sorts of people coming, but because of the incredible danger. By opening up some legal channels for safe crossing, and seeing trafficking as something to be regulated rather than banned, this crisis could end. And we can face this crisis far more clearly, and officials over there can come up with realistic solutions, if we see it as a crisis not of people, but of boats.