Escaping from Economic Injustice

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© British Broadcasting Company
© British Broadcasting Company

Lampedusa October 2013: Following a shipwreck, more than 300 people lost their lives on the 3rd and the 11th October and a few days later 50 more people died in the same way off the coast of Lampedusa.  In recent years, thousands of people have landed on the shores of Italy, Greece, Malta, Cyprus and Spain (including the enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla) after taking various routes across the Mediterranean[1]. These people risk their lives in the hope of a better future. Who are these people who chance such a hazardous journey in old boats? Who are these people who risk their lives to reach Europe? What motivates them?

Pope Francis’ homily gives us a guide: “Where is your brother?”[2]. This question is addressed to us all. Who is responsible for this drama? In today’s world most people have lost a sense of responsibility for their neighbor and nobody feels responsible for the large number of refugees landing up on the Mediterranean coast. These refugees are motivated as much by hope as despair. Some have left their countries and their families and homes because of war or political instability, as evidenced by the large number of Syrians and Afghanis arriving in Greece. However, this is not the only reason to migrate, as some have fled for economic reasons or a combination of political and economic reasons. This is evidenced by an increase in refugee flows during political crises, as was the case during the 2010-2011 Ivorian crisis. Such crises exacerbate existing socioeconomic hardship, as political instability often destroys the fragile livelihoods of poor people.

On the coast of the Mediterranean and the Canary Islands, at Ceuta and Melilla, many African refugees arrive, most being from Senegal, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria, Mauritania, Cameroon, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Guinea, Somalia and Eritrea. For example, the ship that sank off Lampedusa carried mainly Eritrean and Somali refugees. For Eritreans, the main motivation is to escape poverty because insufficient food is produced to feed the population, but young people also flee to avoid military conscription. On the other hand, in Somalia there are problems of political instability as well as widespread poverty.

What the media often forget is that the crossing by boat is just the final stage in a long journey. All over the continent, people want to escape from economic injustice in their country of origin and they decide on a journey that may take three years and even cost their life. There are stark reminders of the dangers for the refugees crossing the Saharan sand as they come across the increasingly numerous bodies of those who went ahead of them. Indeed, there are many dangers on the way: exploitation and abuse from traffickers, lack of food and water, harassment from bandits or police in other countries.  The traffickers who exploit them as they go present Europe to them as a land of milk and honey – and this gives them to courage to face up to the dangers. Unfortunately, many of these refugees end up in Europe just as they left Africa: as victims of economic injustice. Economic hardship and poverty push people to search for better economic opportunities elsewhere. Once they have arrived in Europe, the refugees often have to choose between going back home and staying in Europe ‘irregularly’, accepting clandestine work with the risk of not being paid and having no decent accommodation.[3] But don’t these economic refugees also have the right to a life of dignity?

The dynamics of trade between Africa and Europe has not fundamentally changed since colonization. The neoliberal model propagated by donors and trade agreements imposes a model of economic governance on African countries that keeps Africa as a supplier of the raw materials which are essential to the consumer society in the West. Indeed, the industrialized countries and their financial institutions promote the liberalization of trade with the aim of achieving growth through exports. However, the reality is that natural resources, land and people of Africa are exploited to help the markets of wealthy countries.

We can speak of an impoverishing growth in some countries because inequality has increased and the number of poor continues to grow. Grabbing land and promotion of agribusiness models exacerbate food insecurity and poverty. Faced with such desperation, many families are unable to pay school and medical fees and families send young men on this perilous journey so that they can send back money to their families.

The problem is that the politicians of the world have become accustomed to thinking in ‘policy boxes’ such as trade, migration and development and do not link the different areas. A way of “protecting” European borders is unlikely to include a fundamental change in the economic system that will enable Africa to enjoy its land, its produce and its resources. Currently many refugees who were victims of injustice at home suffer abuse and exploitation throughout their journey and to Europe – and on their arrival.

Gino Brunswijck

Policy Officer

[1] The central Mediterranean route, the western Mediterranean route (inc. Ceuta and Melilla) and the West African route.

[2] Pope Francis’ homily at Lampedusa, 8 July 2013: http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/francesco/homilies/2013/documents/papa-francesco_20130708_omelia-lampedusa_en.html

[3] Economic refugees are not granted these rights because the asylum system in Europe is based on the Geneva Convention which is designed to protect people escaping from conflict.