Refugees – our responsibility?

Italian navy rescuers help refugees climb on to their boat in the Mediterranean last month. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
The Italian navy will continue a search and rescue mission which has saved the lives of an estimated 150,000 refugees, although a decision has already been taken by the Italian Government to replace it with a more limited scheme from 1 November.
The UK Foreign Office stirred ire in Brussels on Tuesday when it announced that it would not participate in any future search and rescue operations, because of their “pulling factor” in encouraging economic migrants to set sail for Europe.  An estimated 2,500 people are known to have died this year while making the perilous trip across the Mediterranean Sea.
Many of these are said to favour the UK as their destination, drawn by the welfare benefits they will be able to claim on arrival.  A prominent politician has remarked that it’s a difficult decision not to rescue people in international waters, and he’s glad the decision doesn’t rest with him, but there may be other options to be considered.

Is he right?  And what might those options be?  Or is his hard-headed pragmatism beyond the pale?

About Peter Goble

I am an Englishman aged 77 years, married with 3 adult children. I am retired from professional life which was in mental health and teaching. I have been a (sort of) practising (sort of) Buddhist for about 30 years, and was active in the hospice sector, and more recently served as a Buddhist chaplain specialising (sort of) in mental health. My wife and I now live in north-western France (Normandy).

4 thoughts on “Refugees – our responsibility?

  1. Hi Peter,

    My feelings about this issue are probably simplistic and naive but I’ll have a go. The situation, as I see it is this:

    There is a large group of people who originate from parts of the world that pose serious risk to the lives of them and their families (in many of these places the west is involved on a military basis). These people have no official means of leaving and therefore undergo the journey of their own volition and/ or with the assistance of criminal traffickers – with the intention of seeking ‘asylum’ (a key word not to be confused with immigration) in Europe – especially countries like the UK that have a long rich tradition of helping and providing asylum from those in need. The journey that these families and individuals undergo is extremely dangerous, and yet, such are the conditions at the place that they call home, it is preferable to staying put.

    As far as I can tell, it is a common occurrence for refugees to become stranded (sometimes as a the result of wilful action from the traffickers) in the Mediterranean, where they are rescued by the European authorities, who often receive a distress call.

    I do not see any justification for a) having knowledge of significant groups of men, women and children being in desperate, mortal danger and b) having the ability to help, and then taking the decision to leave them to their fate – leaving them to die. In my mind this makes Europe (and the UK) implicit in their deaths. There seems to be a view that going out to assist at the location where traffickers leave them only serves to encourage the traffickers in their illegal actions. I don’t know about this, but if it is so – then why is more effort not places on apprehending the traffickers rather than punishing, with death, groups of innocent people in desperate need of help.

    I might have got some of this information wrong, but based upon how I understand the situation, this is how I feel.


  2. Great comments, Rich. I agree with you. One could go further, though, by asking what conditions support the people trafficking operations that put people in such danger in the first place. I’d suggest that’s the ‘fortress Europe’ policy of keeping desperate migrants out. This policy itself strikes me as unsustainable: building an egoistic wall to confine people in one part of the planet and stop them entering another. It’s a short-termist view of our interests, let alone of theirs, to assume that it’s either desirable or possible to keep them out by repressive measures.

    I recognise that my views on migration are controversial, but they are basically that we should dismantle border controls except for policing purposes. I’m surprised that the people who worry about being ‘swamped’ are not embarrassed about the assumptions they are making (they’re often the same people who complain about ‘selfishness’ on a personal level). Letting more people in may make things temporarily more difficult for us, but that’s nothing to how difficult the people on the other side are finding things. I recognise that this is politically unrealistic, and if I was a politician I probably wouldn’t be able to stand on such a policy and expect to get elected. But one has to start somewhere in trying to change people’s mind-set on the topic.

    The situation is similar to that with the ‘war on drugs’, where a repressive approach is also massively failing, and again creates rather than preventing criminality. Here again, I’m in favour of full legalisation, of opening the doors so that we can then take an incremental approach to tackling problems rather than repressing them. The fortress policy might be described in similar terms to the war on drugs, as a ‘war on people’.

    You can read some more of my thoughts on migration at the bottom of this page , which is part of my ‘New Buddhist Ethics’ book (that I really must revise to take out the Buddhist references). I’d also recommend a book by Philippe Legrain called ‘Immigrants: Your country needs them’.

    1. I followed the link above to the relevant section of ‘New Buddhist Ethics’ on migration, which I found to be a real eye-opener and very relevant as an antidote and corrective to the current excitable and simplistic ‘narrative’ on immigration being pumped out by some of the political parties to next year’s general election.

      A peripheral point of my own, based on personal experience, concerns the value of government, however crudely constituted, in helping people to live orderly lives and make progress towards some kind of societal integration.

      I travelled to Zambia (formerly Northern Rhodesia, a British colony) in 1970, 6 years after independence was granted/won. I went there to work and to help establish a school of nursing, based on the British model of modern professionalism and evidence-based practice. At that time Zambia was a ‘one-party democracy’, based on a variant of socialism called ‘The Philosophy of Humanism” propounded by the benevolent dictator Dr Kenneth Kaunda, and implemented by a network of local committees of the ruling party, whose writ was implemented in neighborhoods by youth cadres of the ruling party, and party stalwarts with a lot of clout over who could do business, teach, join the police-force etc.

      Poverty, illiteracy and malnutrition were endemic, and Government agencies were widely regarded as corrupt, appointments to office influenced by tribal or family allegiance etc. Nonetheless, it was my impression across almost twenty years of involvement in Zambia’s affairs, and as a visibly ‘colonial’ throwback albeit married to a Zambian woman and part of a Zambia family, that even the most rudimentary and inefficient system of government supported a rock-solid social coherence.

      In thirty years, Zambia experienced no rebellions, no revolutions, no inter-tribal or external conflicts (despite severe and repeated provocations from the ‘colonial’ south – European-dominated Rhodesia and South Africa); steady incremental progress towards a more sophisticated and effective multi-party democracy’; and ‘giant steps’ towards an improved standard of living for its people, many of whom – as immigrants – make acclaimed contributions towards our own UK prosperity, security, and social and intellectual growth.

      I’ve gained enormously through my involvement with and acceptance by Zambians, despite my clumsy assumptions and gaucheries. I think there’s a strong case to be made for ‘opening the gates’ to welcome in people from the southern hemisphere, who can vivify and refresh our stale culture of materialism, short-termism, and alienation from our brothers and sisters worldwide. Thanks Robert for your invitation to a better future.

  3. Thanks Peter. One argument I’ve heard against open migration is that it would remove the incentive for people in developing countries to focus on their own land and its development. I can see the danger of people in impoverished countries becoming highly dependent on remissions from abroad and thus effectively being drained of their most dynamic citizens. However, very often migrants who make money abroad then want to go home and invest it. There does also seem to be a process within globalised capitalism whereby multinationals are successively drawn to countries with cheaper labour and then that labour gradually becomes more expensive as the country develops. All this makes me suspect that in the long-term, opening the gates would tend to even out global wealth and development rather than maintain the inequality that is causing all the trouble for migrants: though of course this is a fallible stab at making sense of a very complex set of conditions.

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