Yesterday, Oct. 3, After nearly 20 years on and off of living in Italy I, a native-born US citizen, obtained my “green card” – a permanent resident permit that allows me to live in the same country as my wife and daughter (both Italian citizens) without need of further renewal. The same day, at least 111 people, mostly Somalians and Eritreans, died and 250 remain missing when their ship sunk off the coast of Sicily after a fire broke out on board from an attempt to signal authorities at night to come help them.
I have lost count long ago as to how many times this has happened. A few times a year for going on two decades now, ships of desperate would-be immigrants, sailing from points near the Italian coast in Tunisia or Libya go down, taking most of the passengers with it. The migrants seek to arrive at the Italian “Immigrant Welcome Center” of Lampedusa, where their cases will be processed. Lampedusa, visited recently by Pope Francis who sought to bring its conditions to world attention is one of the epicenters, along with the deserts of Arizona and West Texas, of mass death in the effort to reach the global north. Many are sent back to their countries, some jailed, some stuck there for a long time as the case drags on in slow-moving Italian government offices. And many die on the way.
So I, US citizen and college professor, merit a lifetime pass. The passengers of ships sailing to Lampedusa often get death.
But the worst part is not the horror of the deaths, but that some people cheered it, and celebrate that it happened.
Here are some comments from the Yahoo news website where I found the story yesterday:
“July Rain” wrote:
Why would they risk their lives to go to Europe when these people hate Europe so much? The answer is – their lives will be so much better in Europe, they can complain when they feel insulted and the government will award them some money, European countries are non-Muslim so they will force their “peaceful” religion to Europeans. I may be wrong.
No Pathway to Citizenship in Italy? No FREE STUFF Programs in exchange for votes?
“Dude” expressed the following enlightened and enlightening thought:
If those boat people reached shore, they will be crossing borders to UK and France then years later , will be demanding rights and demonstrating in the streets, burning flags, and complain of racial discrimination.
“Randy” stated, with grammatical creativity, and true human feeling:
Immigrants my Axx… they are criminals who are illegally attempting to invade other countries. All their boats need sunk, with them in it.
“Dexter” had wonderful advice for the dead people, though somewhat redundant:
I don’t rejoice at the death of these Somalis and Ethiopians. Having said that, STAY THE EFF HOME. Europe does not want you or need you. Europe has a hard time for its own citizens. Keep your Islam, your poverty and ignorance in your own country. Float your boat to Saudi Arabia and let your Muslim brothers help you. STAY THE EFF OUT OF EUROPE.
“3Days” has a sense of tragedy:
only sad thing is there might have been and empty seat or two now theres a few less muslims!
The world doesn’t work. It is wrong. Two thousand years after Jesus’ “Good Samaritan” parable, 1500 years since Mohammad claimed for all of us the right to be thought of as children of the same God, and 2500 years after Buddha called for compassion with all living things, we live among more people than ever who have no human feeling, no concern, no sense of kinship with others, no empathy for the suffering of others.
What is wrong can’t be solved by stricter methods to keep immigrants home in their countries of origin and making it more difficult to arrive. These measures have existed in Europe for decades and are one of the primary causes of the life-threatening danger involved in emigrating to Europe. Nor can simply doing away with borders be a solution, since this neoliberal free market dream under the currently existing conditions in the world would mean that the wretched conditions instead of being off the coast and on shipboard would be reproduced in every city of the wealthier countries, with the result, as the Economist is happy to point out, of a global convergence of conditions (read: labor costs for business).
Two things are clear: keeping people out by any means today will lead them into the arms of the very organized crime that the EU spokespeople (NY Times today) were so quick to blame, instead of their own closed borders Schengen Accord policies. So closed borders will continue to add to the death toll, now at 25,000 in the past 20 years in the Mediterranean alone. Open borders will lead to a feeding frenzy by capital, an orgy of exploitation and degradation. The policy of “cooperation” between sending and receiving countries is merely a way of off-shoring the repression of closed borders and is no alternative.
Instead, we need to address two indisputable realities:
The migrations today are largely driven by debt and the result of austerity and Structural Adjustment and its descendants which have made life unbearable for hundreds of millions around the world, as I showed in my book, Workers of the World, on immigration to Italy in 2001. The debt of the global south, and not only the global south, must be cancelled out, as the Jubilee and Global Justice movements have been demanding for decades now, so that resources of poor countries can be directed toward meeting the needs of the people. In “Race Against Time”, Stephen Lewis, former UN point man on AIDS in Africa, argued that the fact the no country in Africa could meet the UN’s Millennium Goals was due to the IMF and World Bank policies requiring repayment of the foreign debt of poor countries which easily overwhelms not only aid from foreign countries and donors but also the actual export income of many countries. Further, many of the conditions that make life unlivable for so many in the poorer countries of the world derive from the legacies of the slave trade, colonialism and neo-colonialism, such that the very countries that refuse migrants today once went where they liked and in doing so made the places they settled and conquered unlivable for their populations.
Second, there is no real justification in the world today for borders, but they can’t be taken down in one fell swoop without the worst kinds of social disruption even in the wealthier countries and the final collapse of any defense of better working conditions in at least part of the world.
Putting two and two together suggests the following:
Just as monetary wonks refer to Optimal Currency Areas, we need to make the world an “Optimal Migration Area”. This requires less strict policies for entry immediately, a demilitarization of the border areas of rich countries like the US and all of Europe (and Japan), and a policy of humanitarian tolerance that includes not only better conditions and treatment for those who do not arrive immediately, but also a frank set of discourses by leaders, organizations, movements, governments to the people in countries everywhere that like it or not we are headed toward a global civilization in which people will not live in closed and sealed nation states.
Analogously to the process by which free trade has been proposed, argued for, imposed but explained to populations everywhere, arguments need to made that free access to every country on the planet for every person on the planet is the only way in which civilization can exist globally, in which the reality that we live in one world, as one human community can be made sustainable, or just. There is no justification for me being able to enter Italy and stay and for Eritreans or Somalis to be kept out. That there is a practical reason for the moment, temporarily, why every country needs to manage the arrival of people from elsewhere in the interests of and maintenance of some semblance of order on the way to creating a global Optimal Migration Area is to be understood as analogous to why for the moment some tariffs or limits on the exports or movements of goods or money need to exist on the way to a single global economy.
That that economy needs to exist so as to provide for human needs and well-being is the key part of the puzzle though. For migration to work, it must not be an act of desperation. People must both be able to live, work, find sustenance and a decent life in the place of their birth AND have a right to go where they want. One issue for many who previously voted left in Europe or the US and now faced with issues of immigration listen to right wing siren songs is welfare state benefits. First we need to recognize that these are rapidly being destroyed, by the various policies of both Democrats and Republicans in the US, the latest being sequestration , and in the European Union, which has become primarily a mechanism to impose austerity and destroy social guarantees to working people. Not only do these policies need to be reversed, but the kinds of social guarantees that people in the US and Europe have enjoyed (we are bordering on the past tense in most cases here of course) need to be made available to the people of the whole world, else the differences in condition lead to what workers fear most in Europe and the US in the face of globalization: the race to the bottom. What can be done? A lot: transfers of technologies to poorer countries (like desalination in areas where there is limited potable water, access to the medicines needed at low or free of cost, provision of solar power for areas of the world where it is best suited like most of the Global South, plus finance and training, perhaps with a year or two for professionals in rich countries to provide education or technical expertise or training in poorer countries as a requirement for full membership in their profession, etc.) all under the heading of what the Global South has demanded at both Durban Summits, Reparations. Using the excuse of speeches criticizing Israel both times the West has walked out of the Durban Summits on eliminating inequalities remaining from the heritages of slavery and colonialism and have refused to even hear the word “reparations”. Poorer countries also need more: elimination of their debts and ours, and a system of pensions that would include anyone who works, even if overseas, for a company based in a country. So that anyone working for a US or Italy based multinational would be covered under US social security or the Italian INPS national pension plan and so forth. Limitations on free immigration would gradually but steadily be lifted as these policies were simultaneously implemented worldwide.
But we also need to be clear-headed about this: Somalia is a shambles for many reasons: a long-standing civil war dating from the 1960s, the military intervention under UN guise which has been disastrous, more civil unrest etc. to the point where for years now it is for all intents and purposes a country without a functioning government. This experience, like that of Afghanistan should be to anarchism what the Soviet Union was to Marxism: not what anarchists or Marxists ever meant or wanted, but nevertheless a telling rebuke to easy answers and to smug senses of superiority. This is part of why a policy of downsizing the state per se, such as eliminating borders does not suggest itself as a path to a better or more just world, though more state as in repression of people trying to enter is worse. Neither is a solution. Further, those areas of the world where public power does not exist it does need to be restored, but cannot be restored by the methods used by global governance institutions so far, nor by US military invasion. Incentives are needed. An orderly and competent government in exchange for yet more loosening of the rules for migration and more technology transfer from the wealthy to the poorer world.
But rich countries should be charged a fine for every immigrant or refugee they stop at their border and it should be a steep fine, payable to the country the immigrants come from. And the fine should be greater, and payable to the families of the deceased, for every person who dies trying to enter.
Finally, since one major incentive is the world monetary hierarchy, in which people migrate, like Willy Sutton gravitated to banks, because that is where the money is, or rather where the hard money is, I propose a global conference, on the scale of Bretton Woods, to shift official and legally tradable exchange rates to Purchasing Power Parity (PPP). That is, the value of currency A to currency B will not be determined by the trading of them in markets but by the actual relative value of what those currencies can buy in their home countries. This will not eliminate inequality but will reduce it significantly in one fell swoop, making it more attractive not to migrate and less miserable to arrive with one’s local currency in one’s pocket when doing so. It will help demystify monetary units and make clear that the point of money is to provide for one’s and one’s family or community’s needs. The trading of currencies outside of a certain range close to PPP would be an offense punishable in every country by international agreement.
These reforms, implemented over time (and over a short time, let’s say as rapidly as the shift toward freeing trade in the 1990s and early 2000s occurred ), along with simultaneous opening of borders through ever more liberal migration and refugee policies, would move the earth toward being an Optimal Migration Area, help overcome the resistance to and racism of, indeed inhumanity of much of the population of the Global North, and would help to reduce immediately and eventually to end the loss of life incurred through desperate efforts to reach the richer part of the world.
These changes or any like them cannot occur without fierce struggle, however. And struggles, demands, policy arguments and public debates will be needed. But honestly, there is nowhere else to go: the world cannot exist half-slave and half-free. And the fact that today there are more slaves than have ever existed before at any time in world history, the ubiquity of trafficking in persons, which has, for example, increased in Poland and Romania since both joined the European Union which was supposed to guarantee human rights as part of its attraction to join, suggest that those who go down in the Mediterranean, who end of trafficked for work, sex or other reasons against their will are all the canaries in the coal mine. Sooner or later, if the world does not become one civilization, in which both an American professor and a Somalian mother can move to Italy and live their lives there if they choose, where migrants are not seen with suspicion, in which working 8 hours in Eritrea, Bangladesh, China, Mexico, California, Milan or Tokyo means roughly the same level of decent, comfortable and sustainable living, instead of being the points on path from the abyss to the cloud city of the gods, then true catastrophe will be upon us: World War, Ecological Devastation, or even a world that muddles on like the Roman Empire did. One that is unjust, brutal, exploitative and based on slavery. In which the life of men, women and children are nasty, brutish and short. One where no one hopes any longer, because there is nothing outside the unjust barbarism of a world system that there is no longer any escape from, so that the borders that are today closed to Somalians, Eritreans and others is the world we would all live in at least morally and ethically, like the world of those commenters on the Yahoo news blog, who look out their window at the world and see no brothers or sisters, only the walking dead.
The same day I gained my right to live where I live, and that hundreds of my fellow human beings lost not just the right to the pursuit of happiness, but to life itself as their ship sunk and no help came, my daughter and I went to buy some fish from the friendly Bangladeshi man around the corner at his fresh fish shop. We began to talk about life in Italy. He told me he had been here in Italy for 25 years, and is now an Italian citizen. But his son, born in Italy, and never having lived anywhere else, is not a citizen. Italian law does not grant citizenship to the children of immigrants who are born here, and many in the US would like the law to be the same in America. So children, including so many that my daughter, a citizen here NOT because it is her country, where she was born, but because her mother is an Italian born in Italy (I am of no help on this, but can get her US citizenship recognized as well any time before she turns 18) goes to school with, these children born here, speaking Italian, knowing no other country or reality, are not Italian citizens, but “immigrants” – a law here pushed by the racist and apartheid-supporting Northern League requiring “immigrant children” and “Italian children” to learn in separate classrooms actually passed a few years ago, as if Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King had never been born, not that the world seems to notice apartheid in Europe.
All this must end. I will never look at my admittedly comforting “permesso di soggiorno a tempo indeterminate”, my green card, without thinking of those hundreds of people. Am I more deserving than they were? I know I am not. I know the world is horribly out of balance. I know it must stop being so and we must start now. I know my daughter and my fish-vendor’s son both belong here, both need to be citizens of the countries they have grown up in, and both need to be free to walk or travel by land, sea or air the entire earth as their home. I know that this won’t happen today or tomorrow. But the day after tomorrow will happen if we start now. There is one world. If there were not, trade would not occur. Trade is not about making money, it is about acknowledging that the inconvenient fact that we all need to live somewhere should not mean that some of the practices, knowledge, things, techniques and technologies, languages, products, services, activities and ideas and beliefs that exist on our planet are kept from us. It is not the exchange between discreet and distinct points in space but the recognition of our actual one-ness. Migration is not the movement of people from point A to point B but the reuniting of people who have been far apart, the acknowledgement in fact that we are all one, else it would not occur because to migrate to another place would have no meaning. No one migrates to the 6th dimension (Rod Serling notwithstanding) because there is nothing human, nothing familiar there. But to migrate is to find others, to meet migrants is to find others – NOT THE OTHER – as postmodernists put it so inelegantly nor “these people” as racists in every country have it, but others, others of ourselves, more of us, ones of us. Children of the Earth. Who deserve better to bob on the water and cry for help that does not come. Or to fall down dead in the Arizona desert trying to avoid your fellow human who are searching for you to stop you. If the borders can’t be completely open under current conditions of capitalist power to play us all off against one another, then they need to pushed open a centimeter wider every day and we need to set up rules so that we can’t be so easily played off against one another.
I wanted to be overjoyed at never again having to renew my residence permit in the country my daughter is growing up in, where I met my wife. Instead I thought all last night about what it meant that not only did hundreds die to be where I am yesterday, but that some people were glad, and thought that they deserved it because they were not Western, were Muslims, or at least these commentators thought they were, or were hostile to the West or were brown-skinned or from a different culture. We will have a planetary civilization with room for everyone, where, as CLR James used to quote Aime Cesaire as writing, “there is room for everyone in the rendezvous of victory.”
Until then, until everywhere is home, there is only this.
Steven Colatrella is the author of Workers of the World: African and Asian Migrants in Italy in the 1990s. He can be can be reached at: email@example.com.