Of man and migration

The Great Migration must be wondrous to behold. Each winter, hundreds of thousands of wildebeest, zebras and gazelles descending on the perilous waters of the Mara river to cross over to the greener pastures of the Maasai Mara National Reserve. A glorious reminder of nature’s cycle: beast moving in sync with the changing phases of its environment for survival’s sake. It’s no wonder thousands of tourists flock to the region every year to bear witness to the event; some probably letting out an involuntary whimper when a young calf is dragged under by a crocodile.

The Great Migration: Wildebeests crossing the Mara river. Photo courtesy of Kurt Jay Bertels

The Great Migration: Wildebeests crossing the Mara river. Photo courtesy of Kurt Jay Bertels

A similar trek also involving a treacherous body of water and basic survival instincts, but without the wildebeest, and the picture no longer seems to be the inspiration of pastel-coloured oil paintings. To the contrary, when speaking of human migration even the language used changes from adjectives such as “graceful” and “heroic” to “they might look a bit ‘Bob Geldof’s Ethiopia circa 1984’.” (Bob Geldof’s activism having been so effective against poverty it has achieved the same reference status as a hue on a colour chart).

Similarly, when the human migrant is pulled under the Mediterranean’s unforgiving currents, it is not the sound of whimpering we hear as much as that of compassion and tact failing miserably at the hands of thinly disguised self-interest. When  Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, decided to put in his two cents on the deaths of an estimated 1000 migrants in the Mediterranean this week, his advice to his European counterparts to opt for an iron-fisted approach began with, “I suppose we must grieve for the loss”. Closer to the crisis’ epicentre, and European Commission spokesperson, Natasha Bertaud, rationalised Europe’s lukewarm response to the news of the latest fatalities with something approaching a bride scorned by the death of a future in-law a week before her wedding.

Human migration is as divisive an issue as it gets and the current emergency engulfing Europe and North Africa is testament to that. We are told that every angle of the story is some varying degree of “complex”. From the root cause behind people’s choice to embark on such a dangerous journey to the proposed solutions for simultaneously diminishing the risk of more migrant deaths and more immigration towards the European Union. Attempting to broach the subject even leads into a web-like trap you have to spend the next few hours helplessly trying to entangle yourself from.

Within the web, two main camps become apparent: on the one side, there’s the, “It’s complicated and it shouldn’t be our problem” camp. They don’t appreciate finger-pointing much, especially when it’s directed at Europe or its members for their handling of the situation. Some within the camp consider that enough money has already been put forward and a cash-strapped, pro-austerity Europe with high unemployment is in no position to be funding a search and rescue program or the costs of increasing its population through mass immigration. A few, like the Theresa Mays (UK Home Secretary) and Nigel Farages (leader of right-wing UKIP party), of the camp also believe search and rescue to be counterintuitive – acting as a “pull factor” for “millions” of future migrants – and that boats should be escorted back to their starting point. Offering sanctuary to “‘a few thousand’ Christian refugees” would be acceptable, however.*

On the other side, there’s the “Being humane is simple” camp, made up of the finger-pointers who state unequivocally that saving the lives of fellow men, women and children should not even be questioned. They are of the opinion that a search and rescue operation of the scope of Mare Nostrum – the Italian program which was scrapped last year for being too burdensome for Italy’s coffers – should be reinstated before targeting the smugglers who pack asylum seekers on dingy boats with nothing more than well wishes and a compass. Most within this camp argue that Europe is not actually inundated by millions of immigrants, that its minimalist policies are driven by widespread xenophobia, and that its members should do their moral duty and each increase their intake of refugees. A smaller group go the extra mile and rally against the hypocrisy of EU member nationals who, while figuratively sharpening the stakes of the Union’s border fences, suffer from selective amnesia regarding the origins of their own ascendants (a connection to some exotic location only being recalled with pride when it reveals our worldliness and culture) or, for those pure-breds, the origins of the very wealth which draws immigrants to our golden shores.

Maybe this will be the year when Europe will adopt a comprehensive immigration policy that will alleviate the worst effects of the crisis, or, alternatively, that the conflicts and oppression in Syria, Eritrea, Somalia and Libya** will all come to an end. Until then, we can turn our attention back to the National Geographic channel and admire the throng of courageous wildebeests charging the river banks in the blind hope they will reach the sweeter grass on the other side.


* The last point only being advocated by Nigel Farage and not Theresa May.

** To name but a few.

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