Through Seas and Jungles: The Tragedy African of Migration

[Image credit: Antonio Parrinello_Reuters Wednesday, March 04 2015_migrant coffin Augusta Italy]

A young Eritrean family of three, also expecting another child, have resided in “The Jungle” for several months: no sanitation, little clean water, and even less hope of escaping their current limbo. According a recent Guardian investigation, this family hoped to stow away onto a channel ferry into the UK, via a trans-continental goods lorry. Located in at a public park in the port town of Calais, France, this family of migrants-refugees-human beings are among many who trickle here from various locations in North Africa, and other conflict ridden zones. This is “The Jungle”, labelled not least because the desperate situation induces its own conflict boundaries. Reports of the factional nature of this desperate way-station, with the Sudanese guarding their own corner and “home-made” latrines, and the Kurds renowned for mafia like presence, reproduces the violence that many of The Jungle inhabitants have tried to escape in their home countries.

Contemporary commentary of this crisis and the seemingly never-ending stream of migrants from Africa to Europe offers a picture of recent escalation in these movements. UNHCR statistics, cited in a National Geographic piece, claim that migration from Africa (and Syria) jumped from 169,271 in January 2013 to 350,775 in September 2014, doubling over 21 months. Of note, the largest single country shedding migrants is Eritrea. The above Guardian commentary on The Jungle reports a significant number of Eritreans, including the young family of three this article began with. Political oppression experienced in Eritrea, and increasing unemployment in under performing economies, like Ghana, and long term conflicts, like Sudan, appear to continue to push migrants to the promise of a prosperous Europe (see recent post on documentary series on African perception on migration to Europe). However, this trend precedes the recent boom. In 2006 just over 22,000 Africans, mostly North Africans, made their way across the Mediterranean. In this same BBC report, 24 died in a capsized dingy off the Maltese coast in June 2007. The dynamic of remittances being sent back home, also feeds the promise of not only individual prosperity, but that of increasing the welfare of one’s family. Migrants who survive the trek and places like The Jungle, and live in poverty working menial jobs, are able to send home vital cash payments. In 2010 these payments reached $40 billion US. This figure has been steadily growing from $10 billion US in 1990. Whilst the explosion is a recent phenomenon, the story is not new.

Since the 2013 sinking of at least 300 Somalis, Eritreans and Ghanaians near the Italian island of Lampedusa, Western media occasional throw a bone to the steady stream of the “drowned and (occasionally) the saved”.  Primo Levi’s assessment of the villains and victims of the camp system is appropriate: those caught in the camps were subject to the structures and power struggles let loose at the heart of the genocide in Europe. Levi’s situating these actors in “the gray zone” offers a more compelling explanation than perhaps the ever variable and changing degrees and origin points of push and pull. The economic structures that lay behind such factors provide a systemic level framing of such political and economic migration, and create a dynamic of chaos only clear observable in the sea and jungle. The demand for cheap labour has defined most capitalist economies since the Industrial Revolution. Whether you are a fruit picker in California, a Chinese sex worker in Japan, or a Eritrean cleaning toilets in Italy, the implication is the same, global structures so disproportionately favoring the Global North enable instability in regions like North Africa, in the name of maintaining the order and security of hyper-consumerist lifestyles. This perpetration of a gray zone, manifests in horrible living/working conditions for migrants, and life-threatening geographies of transit in the sea and jungle.

Integral to the hidden workings of capitalism’s cheap labour is the business of human trafficking. Such smuggling activity ranges from informal to multileveled networks, and often run deep in many North African economies. Blessing, a Nigerian who fled a Boko Haram attack in her village, reported paying for smuggled passage and being locked in a boat:

“It was July 15, 2013. We were 150 people in the dark, crouched down together on the deck, sitting. But the boat broke down, and we drifted seven days at sea. Sun and heat and no water! Fifteen people died. I was so afraid, I shut my eyes. I don’t know what they did with the bodies. Finally another trafficking boat came and took only the girls, us 20. We left the others and don’t know what happened to them.”

The Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, makes a further distinction between a range of activities encompassing smuggling and human trafficking, in-between which occur varying degrees of exploitation and extortion. The presence of these trade networks add onus not only onto African governments to disincentivize such means of migration, but also onto Global North governments to tackle the long-term issues of global inequality (not to mention reckless foreign policy and adventurist intervention that destroys Global South countries, and produces another generation of migrants- think Syria and Libya). Detention centres across Europe displace the Kantian right to hospitality, and betray the lack of coherent, humane policy.

Seyla Benhabib reminds us of the paradox of this ideal:

“The Universal Declaration is silent on states’ obligations to grant entry to immigrants, to uphold the right of asylum, and to permit citizenship to alien residents and denizens. These rights have no specific addressees and they do not appear to anchor specific obligations of compliance on the part of second and third parties. Despite the cross-border character of these rights, the Declaration upholds the sovereignty of individual states”

This tension written into the heart and soul of international relations, also manifests in what Benhabib calls the “disaggregation of citizenship (and) sovereignty”: whilst states increasingly out-source public functions to the global market (a trend on the rise in Africa, as China and Europe engage in natural resource and infrastructure economies), citizenship, if Europe’s trend is not unique, is being broadened out to include the excluded, offering rights to migrants currently caught in the gray zone of the global economy. Yet, the promise of such citizenship is being thwarted by the securitization of immigration policy and the “Othering” of the migrant entrenched in Western societies.

Marjorie, a Uganda asylum seeker in the UK, describes the process that bounced her asylum claim around for seven years as horrific, casting doubt on Benhabib’s mixed optimism: “Whatever the system, they torture people diplomatically. They are not beating you, they are not raping you, but then they just leave you in that limbo”. While the risk of drowning in the Mediterranean, being reduced to camp life in Calais or staring down poverty in the Global South pockets of the geography of the Global North, Africans are still compelled to traverse the sea and jungle in hope of barely existing prosperity. Regardless of the motivation, the manifest brutality of migration only further demonstrates the increasingly apparent scale of global inequality and the total apathy of its benefactors.

Further Reading:

Migrant Files, 2013

International Organization for Migration, Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost during Migration, 2014.

Brief summary of Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved

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