Unjustifiable violence: the Mediterranean crisis

From the OpenDemocracy website: This is the open letter written and signed by over  300 migration scholars denouncing plans for war in the Mediterranean

and the “spin” being used by European politicians to promote it.

Unjustifiable violence: the Mediterranean crisis

20 May 2015

More than 300 slavery and migration scholars respond to those advocating for military force against migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean. This is no slave trade. Where is the moral justification for actions that cost lives?

Update: This letter has generated support from scholars across the world, not only from within the fields of migration and slavery but also from many related areas—such as law, history and philosophy—as well as support from other parts of civil society. As of 24 May, four days after initial publication, we have received 238 additional signatures of support. They, as well as the 310 initial signatories, are listed below.

To add your name to the list of signatures, please email your name and institutional affiliation to beyond.slavery@opendemocracy.net with the subject “SIGN”.

European Union political leaders have announced that their response to the staggering loss of life amongst migrants crossing the Mediterranean in unseaworthy vessels will be the use of force to smash the so-called ‘networks’ that operate out of Libya to orchestrate the perilous sea crossings. How? On May 11, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini stated that “No one is thinking of bombing. I’m talking about a naval operation,” but two days later, the Guardian reported on a leaked strategy paper for an EU mission in the Mediterranean and in Libyan territorial waters proposing an air and naval campaign. This, the paper said, would lead to ‘collateral damage’. In other words, adults and children boarding or aboard the vessels under attack might be killed. With or without bombs, such ‘collateral damage’ is already a known product of the measures being employed by the EU to push back, deter, and divert migrants, including those seeking asylum.

Where is the moral justification for some of the world’s richest nations employing their naval and technological might in a manner that leads to the death of men, women and children from some of the world’s poorest and most war torn regions? A dangerous perversion of history is being peddled to answer this question.

In recent years, policy on unauthorized movement across borders has drawn a distinction between the activities of ‘people smugglers’ and those of ‘human traffickers’. Smuggling involves voluntary, consensual arrangements, but trafficking is said to entail coercion or deception, and has been repeatedly likened to the transatlantic slave trade by politicians, journalists, and even some contemporary anti-slavery campaigners. The dangers of the analogy are now made manifest, with the terms ‘smuggling’ and ‘trafficking’ being employed interchangeably in relation to migrants crossing the Mediterranean. And it is this elision that makes it possible for EU leaders to discuss the use of military force on the North African coast as if it were a moral necessity. “Human traffickers are the slave traders of the 21st century, and they should be brought to justice”, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi recently wrote. When the problem is framed in this way, their vow to “identify, capture and destroy” the vessels of those who move migrants looks like a ‘tough choice’ forced upon EU leaders by the sudden appearance of a far greater evil—a modern slave trade.

But this is patently false and entirely self-serving. As scholarship on the history of slavery makes painfully clear, what is happening in the Mediterranean today does not even remotely resemble the transatlantic slave trade. Enslaved Africans did not want to move. They were held in dungeons before being shackled and loaded onto ships. They had to be prevented from choosing suicide over forcible transportation. That transportation led to a single and utterly appalling outcome—slavery.

Today, those embarking on the journey to Europe want to move. If they were free to do so, they would be taking advantage of the flights that budget airlines operate between North Africa and Europe at a tiny fraction of the cost of the extraordinarily dangerous sea passage. And it is not ‘slavers’ or ‘traffickers’ who are preventing them from accessing this safe route.

It’s true that would-be migrants are sometimes held in terrifying conditions in Libya, but not in dungeons as a precursor to being forcibly shipped as slaves. Rather, many are held in immigration detention centres, partly funded by the EU, where both adults and children are at risk of violence, including whippings, beatings and torture. And the outcome for those who make it onto boats is uncertain. Some die en route, some survive only to be exploited and abused at the point of destination. But others who survive secure at least a chance of accessing rights, protection, family reunion, education, work, freedom from persecution, and so on.

This is not the contemporary equivalent of the transatlantic slave trade. To attempt to crush it with military force is not to take a noble stand against the evil of slavery, or even against ‘trafficking’. It is simply to continue a long tradition in which states, including slave states of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, use violence to prevent certain groups of human beings from moving freely.

This, it should be remembered, is a tradition that found its apogee in the now notorious Berlin Conference of 1885 which authorised the partition/conquest of Africa by the powers of Europe on the basis of ending so-called ‘Arab slavery’. In the two decades that followed, millions of Africans lost their lives including vast numbers of Congolese under the tutelage of the great ‘philanthropist’ himself, King Leopold II of Belgium.

And today the manner in which European states, and Australia, are continuing that tradition sets an example which is being followed worldwide, as evidenced by the appalling spectacle of Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar, but refused landing in Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia and left to die at sea.

There is no moral basis for measures that lead to the death of peaceable women, men and children, including victims of torture, and those fleeing persecution and war. Europe’s leaders and people must remember their own history, recent and not so recent, and the responsibilities Europe bears for the bodies in the Mediterranean and the people on the boats. We call for the resettlement of many more refugees within Europe and the dismantling of the barriers to movement that have been put in the way of all but the most wealthy.

We demand that Europe’s political leaders stop abusing the history of transatlantic slavery to legitimate military and migrant deterrent actions, and instead recall, and act upon the demands for freedom of movement, or ‘a right of locomotion’ articulated by African American anti-slavery activists of the nineteenth century.

No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.
Frederick Douglass