Martin Rowson 29.10.14

Martin Rowson in today’s Guardian

A few days ago I posted a piece about the photo of desperate migrants perched on top of the border fence that surrounds the Spanish enclave of Melilla on the north African coast.  Now we learn that the British government has supported, and the EU justice and home affairs council has adopted a policy of leaving migrants to drown.

For the past year the Italian navy, with EU financial and logistical support, has operated a search-and-rescue operation called Mare Nostrum for migrants in danger of drowning in the Mediterranean which has saved the lives of an estimated 150,000 refugees. It is to be replaced with a much more limited EU ‘border protection’ operation codenamed Triton which will not conduct search-and-rescue missions. The justification given by both the UK government and the EU for this inhumane decision is that Mare Nostrum exercised a ‘pulling factor’, encouraging economic migrants to set sail for Europe.

Amnesty International’s UK director, Kate Allen, said today that history would judge the decision as unforgivable:

This is a very dark day for the moral standing of the UK. When the hour came, the UK turned its back on despairing people and left them to drown. The vague prospect of rescue has never been the incentive. War, poverty and persecution are what make desperate people take terrible risks.

Migrants are impelled by a potent combination of desperation and aspiration, global inequalities in work and freedom, and the insecurity created by war and persecution across north Africa and the Middle East. The poor and oppressed will always move in search of work and freedom in a world so unequal.

Refugee boat on the coast of Lampedusa

Refugee boat off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa

This morning’s Guardian editorial pulls no punches:

The British government’s refusal to support search and rescue missions to save refugees in the Mediterranean is an outrageous and immoral act. It suggests a government so alarmed by Ukip that it has lost all sense of proportion. The Italian-funded Mare Nostrum exercise, mobilised after 300 refugees drowned off Lampedusa a year ago, has saved thousands of lives.  […] What a grotesque betrayal of the founding principles of the EU, an organisation built on the promise of peace, prosperity and asylum for the desperate. What an indictment of timid politicians.

On the letters page, the artist Anish Kapoor asks, ‘Have we lost our sense of common humanity? Are we to isolate ourselves to such an extent that we are unable or unwilling to reach out to our fellow human beings? These people find themselves in such dire difficulties that they see no choice but to take to the high seas and risk their lives in vessels that are woefully inadequate. Let us not forget that our government acts in our name and that each of us is implicated in this act of barbaric selfishness.’

Yesterday Nicholas Winton, the British man who saved 669 Jewish children from the Nazi concentration camps by arranging trains to take the children out of occupied Czechoslovakia to be fostered in Britain, was awarded the Czech Republic’s highest state honour. How does the morality of the decision to end support for Mare Nostrum differ from that of European countries that turned their backs on the Jews in 1939?  That was the year when WH Auden wrote ‘Refugee Blues’, from which I’ve taken these extracts:

Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes:
Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.

Once we had a country and we thought it fair,
Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there:
We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.


The counsul banged the table and said,
‘If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead’:
But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.


Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees;
They had no politicians and sang at their ease:
They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.

Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors,
A thousand windows and a thousand doors;
Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.

As Alex Andreou observes in ‘Random acts of kindness can make the world a better place‘ this is all about ‘lack of kindness and meanness of spirit’. He continues:

There are lines which, if crossed, make us immoral as a country. This is one of them, especially considering our involvement in the conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa which fuel the surge in refugees. It leaves our allies with a choice to either make up the shortfall or let people drown in their waters. People – men, women and children – not migrants or refugees; not numbers. Families like mine and yours, fleeing in precisely the same way we would if we lived in a war zone.

We bewail the loss of our values, whether we call them civilised, British, western or Christian. We turn to a minority of migrants and blame them for ostensibly diluting them. But it is simply not true. The reason we are losing our values is that we are failing to nourish them, cherish them and hold on to them. It is a collective meanness of spirit.

The reason we are becoming less and less like the Britain we recognise is not the presence of Polish plumbers; it is the putting up of spikes to shoo away the homeless instead of offering them a cup of tea. The reason this is no longer a civilised country is not the presence of a smattering of mosques; it is the decision to let people drown in the sea to save a measly amount which will not make even the smallest dent in our budget. The reason we are turning uncivilised, un-British, unchristian, un-western – however you define it – is the lack of tangible kindness. We are simply turning into the worst version of ourselves.

Rocella near Riace abandoned sailing ship Kurds ashore 1999

Rocella near Riace abandoned sailing ship Kurds ashore 1999

In December last year I wrote about Riace, a poor village in Calabria that has welcomed migrants with open arms.  For more than a decade, since two hundred Kurds scrambled ashore from their sinking boat on the nearby coas,t the villagers have opened their doors to migrants in a dramatic reversal of usual attitudes towards immigrants.  The left-wing mayor encouraged the Kurds to settle in his village replacing the people who had left and reversing his village’s decline.  Since then, more ‘people who come from the sea’, as locals put it, have been encouraged to settle in the village.

Yesterday on the Today programme an Eritrean migrant,Daniel Habtey, who is now a British citizen, described his ‘horrendous’ journey to Italy on a tiny boat.  He fled Eritrea with his wife and family ten years ago because the regime persecuted Christians and now lives and works as a Pastor in Huddersfield.

The dead from the Lampedusa tragedy

The dead from the Lampedusa tragedy

It’s barely a year since more than 300 African migrants drowned when their boat caught fire and sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa.  Delalorm Sesi Semabia responded to the disaster by writing this poem:

We have laughed before
On the morning when we were born.
I was not there but they told me I laughed.
With careless glee, taking all the world in my gums.
And these ones
I heard them laugh
That early morning when the midwife brought them here
Telling tales of shot mamas and arrested papas
Certainly never to return.
I did not see them but I heard them laugh
Laugh at the world, laugh at all our world
Which would not laugh back.

Why do you ask us to laugh now
Here, at the brink of this water
Coming and going, calling us?
Why do you ask us to laugh
With a burnt village behind us
And drowned brothers before us,
On our way to Lampedusa?
What is humorous about paddling over the place
Where your brother’s carcass lies
Grinning up above at you
On your way to freedom,
And Lampedusa, death.
Wherein is the humour of overtaking your brother?

We sail away, our heads full of dreams
Dreams that come to us only by daylight
For where we stand,
We cannot sleep at night
And try as we do,
We have forgotten how to laugh.


9 thoughts on “Watching migrants drown: ‘there are lines which, if crossed, make us immoral’

  1. Gerry I follow your blog eagerly, as my parents were from your area. However, I think we need to seriously rethink what’s going on in the world. We in the US also have many migrants coming here as I’m sure you know, to clean and pick and haul and build, hard work. Done by sometimes PhD’s and teachers and lawyers and ordinary people in their own countries. There needs to be a movement by the privileged of our world into their world for social justice. Most of these migrants love their countries and want to be there. The “Cold War” provided these countries with kleptocracies, it’s up to us to help people to rid themselves of these awful governments.

  2. Thanks to David, Kathleen and Olivia for reblogging – I really appreciate your comments, and the issue deserves the widest consideration.

  3. Hi Gerry,
    Perhaps the British government has been getting advice from Australia. Although the situation is a bit different: the migrants are heading for Australia, and there is an active interception plan. This is aimed at prevention of entry to Australian territory. It came to our attention in 2001 with the Tampa Affair and media reports of Children Overboard. It has been an ongoing saga, bodies in the sea at Christmas Island, reports of attempts to force boats back to Indonesia and the infamy of the detention centres particularly the one in a former phosphate quarry on Nauru. On Google I got 28, 000 hits for Nauru Detention Centre. The latest Australian policy, Operation Sovereign Borders, started in 2013, the link has a handy graph of migrant numbers and the trend is strongly linked with civil unrest in western asia (Afghan Hanza in 2001, Kurds now).
    The common argument is that boat people are queue jumpers, although Australia and NZ didn’t take that view with the boat people coming out of Vietnam and Cambodia in the ’70’s and ‘80’s. I don’t know what to think about the situation described in your post, clearly a policy of ‘not rescuing’ people from vessels in distress, goes against maritime law and is clearly immoral from a western viewpoint. I’m not so clear on why the British government should be patrolling in the Mediterranean, let alone patrolling specifically to intercept and rescue boat people seeking to cross the Mediterranean. I’m hoping you’ll do another well considered post on why Britain should be involved and another on solutions to the inequity that precipitates these desperate attempts to enter Europe.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.