News emerged last week of the latest tragedy to befall African migrants trying to get into Europe. A 20-metre fishing boat was intercepted by the Italian navy off the coast of Sicily. It was carrying approximately 600 people, 30 of whom were dead. They are believed to have succumbed to asphyxiation from engine fumes. A Syrian man who was on the boat said: ‘There were too many of us. They forced us on to the boat, though there was no space left. Those inside, with the hatch closed, they were killed.’ When the people tried to get out of the cabin to escape the fumes, the crew were afraid the boat would capsize and bolted the door shut.
This is just the latest in a series of horrific incidents in which migrants have died during the perilous crossing from North Africa on overcrowded vessels. The worst of such cases was the capsizing of a boat of migrants off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa in October last year, in which at least 360 people died. Since the Arab Spring, the number of migrants attempting to enter Europe in small boats from North Africa has increased substantially. In a 48-hour period at the end of June, the Italian navy scooped up 5,000 immigrants, bringing the number of ’boat people’ to arrive in Italy this year to 60,000.
The Italian government says it can no longer cope with the volumes of people it must rescue and subsequently detain in overcrowded reception centres. So it has called for help from the EU. Rumours suggest that the incoming president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, is to create a new commissioner for migration to work out how to stop the flow of migrants into Europe. Blame for the deaths has been laid at the feet of the traffickers who arrange the boat crossings, employers who offer migrants jobs on arrival, and even the coast guard for allegedly emboldening migrants to attempt the crossing by rescuing those on stricken craft.
There is a paradox in the way migrants are presented by both the media and EU officials. They are portrayed as victims, yet treated as criminals; neither characterisation is useful. Rather, people who have sought to defy the circumstances in which they find themselves and undertake great risks to enter Europe show remarkable daring and will. However, the media and political class are eager to recast them as passive and vulnerable, awaiting rescue from the brave boys in the Italian navy. And their aspiration to seek a better life in Europe is rewarded with a long stay in an internment camp before they are forcibly repatriated like criminals.
The characterisation of migrants as victim-criminals says a lot more about the disparity between how the EU operates and how it would like to be seen, than it does about the boat people. The EU is desperate to be seen as liberal; it defines itself in opposition to, and is also terrified of, populist anti-EU, anti-immigrant parties like UKIP and Front National, which did so well in the recent European elections. Hence the EU must be seen to show the compassion for migrants its opponents do not, which, in practice, means imbuing them with victimhood.