I’ve just finished reading Hans Rosling’s incredibly important book “Facfulness”. For the most part is a very uplifting and positive take on the state of the world today – and thereby a welcome antidote to the prevailing negativity and doom and gloom that pervades the news and social media. It is, after all, subtitled “Ten reasons why we’re wrong about the world – and why things are better than you think”
However, towards the end, in a chapter entitled The Blame Instinct, he examines the situation, in 2015, of the 4,000 refugees who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea as they tried to reach Europe in inflatable boats. I’m sure we all remember the images of children’s bodies washed up on holiday beaches. That were splashed all over the news media and evoked outpourings of horror and compassion. Well, of horror at least. How could it happen? Who is to blame?
Over to Hans Rosling (Factfulness pg212ff):
[W]hy weren’t the refugees traveling to Europe on comfortable planes or ferry boats instead of traveling over land to Libya or Turkey and then entrusting their lives to these rickety rubber rafts? After all, all EU member states were signed up to the Geneva Convention, and it was clear that refugees from war-torn Syria would be entitled to claim asylum under its terms. I started to ask this question of journalists, friends, and people involved in the reception of the asylum seekers, but even the wisest and kindest among them came up with very strange answers.
Perhaps they could not afford to fly? But we knew that the refugees were paying 1,000 euros for each place on a rubber dinghy. I went online and checked and there were plenty of tickets from Turkey to Sweden or from Libya to London for under 50 euros.
Maybe they couldn’t reach the airport? Not true. Many of them were already in Turkey or Lebanon and could easily get to the airport. And they can afford a ticket, and the planes are not overbooked. But at the check-in counter, they are stopped by the airline staff from getting onto the plane. Why? Because of a European Council Directive from 2001 that tells member states how to combat illegal immigration. This directive says that every airline or ferry company that brings a person without proper documents into Europe must pay all the costs of returning that person to their country of origin. Of course the directive also says that it doesn’t apply to refugees who want to come to Europe based on their rights to asylum under the Geneva Convention, only to illegal immigrants. But that claim is meaningless. Because how should someone at the check-in desk at an airline be able to work out in 45 seconds whether someone is a refugee or is not a refugee according to the Geneva Convention? Something that would take the embassy at least eight months? It is impossible. So the practical effect of the reasonable-sounding directive is that commercial airlines will not let anyone board without a visa. And getting a visa is nearly impossible because the European embassies in Turkey and Libya do not have the resources to process the applications. Refugees from Syria, with the theoretical right to enter Europe under the Geneva Convention, are therefore in practice completely unable to travel by air and so must come over the sea.
Why, then, must they come in such terrible boats? Actually, EU policy is behind that as well, because it is EU policy to confiscate the boats when they arrive. So boats can be used for one trip only. The smugglers could not afford to send the refugees in safe boats, like the fishing boats that brought 7,220 Jewish refugees from Denmark to Sweden over a few days in 1943, even if they wanted to.
Our European governments claim to be honouring the Geneva Convention that entitles a refugee from a severely war-torn country to apply for and receive asylum. But their immigration policies make a mockery of this claim in practice and directly create the transport market in which the smugglers operate. There is nothing secret about this; infant it takes some pretty blurry or blocked thinking not to see it.
We have an instinct to find someone to blame, but we rarely look in the mirror. I think smart and kind people often fail to reach the terrible, guilt-inducing conclusion that our own immigration policies [those of the EU] are responsible for the drownings of refugees.
Thank you, Hans.
So there you have it. I wish I had had this to hand a couple of years ago when the toxic Brexit debate was at its height. Yes, of course, there were, and are racists heavily involved in the Leave camp. But to try to label the everybody on the Leave side of the argument as small-minded, xenophobic racists, was always despicable in itself and even more so when you accept the fact that the the racists on the Remain side are even more in denial, hide in the shadows and successfully enact racist, anti-refugee policies in blatant contravention of the Geneva Convention.
I am not saying that this, in itself, is grounds for supporting either side of the Brexit campaign. What I am saying is that it kind of invalidates the whole topic from the debate. There is little to choose between the two sides in the final analysis (this story could be about UKIP with just a few words changed), other than one side is a bit more brazen and honest about its stance than the other. All the bollocks talked about freedom of movement boils down to simply shifting the barriers around.
Talking of barriers, perhaps the EU could sell the design for this one to Donald Trump:
P.S. I fully expect a torrent of abuse from rabid ‘Remainers’, indignant at the mere suggestion that their wonderful EU could compared to overtly racist UKIP. I’d invite them to take a good look at the facts first, then in the mirror second. By all means stand by your ‘Remain’ convictions, but take some responsibility for cleaning up the focus and level of the debate.