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The Tragedy of Lampedusa - What to Do?

The travails faced by economic refugees from the developing world are a consequence of overpopulation and overburdening of ecological resources in their respective countries. Urgent steps are to be taken by their respective governments to avoid repeated tragedies faced by refugees as they seek to undertake difficult journeys to the developed world. 

What happened on 3rd October 2013 at the coast of Lampedusa has roused sympathy and stirred the conscience of Europeans. They are of course at a loss to know what they should do. But sympathy is in any case good.

What should the Europeans do in order to avert frequent recurrence of such tragedies on their doorstep? Can something be done at all? I am very dissatisfied with what I have heard and read in the media and in my friends circle. Sympathy and rescue operations testify that we haven’t become totally cold-hearted yet. But solving the problem is a very different matter. There are two prerequisites to that – firstly, an in-depth analysis of the causes of the problem and, secondly, the will to solve it.

A deep analysis of the causes of the problem on our hands requires the knowledge that it is a global problem. In connection with the last few boat disasters in the Mediterranean sea, we heard of refugees from Somalia, Eretria, Syria and, generally speaking, North Africa. But such refugees come from all over the world, even from the emerging economic powers such as China and India. And their destination is not only Europe, but also North America and Australia.

In case of refugees from Syria and Somalia, partly also of those from Iraq, the main cause at present is clearly the on-going civil wars there. But seen globally and generally, most of them are neither political nor civil war refugees. They would not want to go back home when the civil war is over or when the dictatorship in their country is replaced with a democracy. They are also not fleeing from dire poverty, from hunger. The really poor and their families cannot pay the price the refugee smugglers demand. In truth, they are economic refugees, young people who want to try their luck in the highly developed rich countries. In this enterprise they run high risks, they may fail, they may even die. But youth is simply like that. In their native country, they cannot bear the dreary life without any hope.

For really understanding this global problem, it is necessary to gauge in some depth the whole state of the world today. Even in the apparently clear case of Syrian refugees, it is not enough to mention the immediate cause, namely the civil war. We must also understand the cause of the civil war. It was caused by a combination of growing population, worsening state of the environment, and a bad economic policy. Syria’s population grew from 8.7 million in 1980 to about 23 million today. The discontent among the people began with a drought, which soon became the main driving force of the rebellion against the regime. American journalist Thomas L. Friedman recently paraphrased in the following words what Samir Aita, a Syrian economist, told him in this connection:

‘The drought did not cause Syria’s civil war’ … but, … the failure of the government to respond to the drought played a huge role in fueling the uprising. What happened … was that after Assad took over in 2000 he opened up the regulated agricultural sector in Syria for big farmers, many of them government cronies, to buy up land and drill as much water as they wanted, eventually severely diminishing the water table. This began driving small farmers off the land into towns, where they had to scrounge for work.” (The New York Times, 18.05.2013)

Friedman commented: „In an age of climate change, we’re likely to see many more such conflicts.”

Interwoven Problems

The roots of many such conflicts and rebellions of the present time lie in these two interwoven problems. The more the population grows, the more it degrades the environment. And the more the environment is degraded, the less it can help the population earn its livelihood. Let us take two more examples:

In 1979, Egypt’s population was 40 million. By 2011, the year in which the people rebelled against the Mubarak regime, the figure had risen to 85 million. On the state of the environment there, we read:

“In Egypt, soil compaction and rising sea levels have already led to saltwater intrusion in the Nile Delta; overfishing and overdevelopment are threatening the Red Sea ecosystem, and unregulated and unsustainable agricultural practices in poorer districts, plus more extreme temperatures, are contributing to erosion and desertification. The World Bank estimates that environmental degradation is costing Egypt 5 percent of gross domestic product annually.” (Article of Friedman in NYT, 21.09.2013)

Let us also take Iran as example, where in 2009 the middle class youth rebelled against the theocratic regime. In 1979, 37 million people lived in Iran. Today, the figure is 75 million. But what is more dangerous for the future of the country is the worsening state of its environment. In July of this year, Iran’s former agriculture minister, Issa Kalantari, an adviser to Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, said in a newspaper interview:

Our main problem that threatens us, that is more dangerous than Israel, America or political fighting, is the issue of living in Iran.… It is that the Iranian plateau is becoming uninhabitable. ... Groundwater has decreased and a negative water balance is widespread, and no one is thinking about this. … I am deeply worried about the future generations. ... If this situation is not reformed, in 30 years Iran will be a ghost town. Even if there is precipitation in the desert, there will be no yield, because the area for groundwater will be dried and water will remain at ground level and evaporate. … All the bodies of natural water in Iran are drying up: Lake Urumieh, Bakhtegan, Tashak, Parishan and others.

Kalantari concluded:

… the deserts in Iran are spreading, and I am warning you that South Alborz and East Zagros will be uninhabitable and people will have to migrate. But where? Easily I can say that of the 75 million people in Iran, 45 million will have uncertain circumstances. ... If we start this very day to address this, it will take 12 to 15 years to balance.(quoted from ibid).

Kalantari’s question, where the environmental refugees of Iran could in future migrate to, was a rhetorical question. He meant to say, there was nowhere to go. The world’s economic refugees of today know the answer: to Europe, North America, and Australia. Their attempts mostly fail, often ending in a tragedy, as we recently witnessed at the coast of Lampedusa. Another consequence of these attempts is the rise of racist and xenophobic extreme right forces in the rich countries, where “black, brown and yellow” refugees are totally unwelcome, where they regularly become victims of fascistic pogroms.

Can something be done at all to solve the problem? What most certainly will not work is opening all national boundaries, which many good people, radical leftists included, have been demanding for many years now. Unlike in the 1950s and 1960s, when the West European and North American economies were booming, there are today hardly any jobs there for the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of unskilled economic refugees who would storm the job markets there if the borders were to be totally opened. The economies of the rich countries have been stagnating for quite a few years now, and in future, they would continue to stagnate, most probably even contract.

Moreover, most labour-intensive branches of industry have in the past been outsourced to cheap-labour countries, or they have been radically automatised, both leading to rise in unemployment in the rich countries. Nobody would profit from such an open-border policy except racist and xenophobic extreme right forces. And most certainly, no government of the rich countries would pursue such a refugee policy – not the least for fear that extreme rightist and xenophobic mobs would take violent actions.

The countries the economic refugees come from would, therefore, not be able to solve their overpopulation problem by promoting emigration of their surplus population of unemployed and unemployable young people. In the previous centuries, some of today’s developed European countries solved their overpopulation problem by encouraging emigration to the then relatively thinly populated countries, and the first immigrant-inhabitants of the latter welcomed the new immigrants. “The first nations”, the American Indians and the Australian Aborigines had of course never been asked for permission. But today, there is hardly any thinly populated country left in the world. “Thinly populated” is, of course, a relative term. Australia, one may argue, is one such country. But that does not help. The present-day inhabitants of the country simply do not welcome thousands of non-white unskilled immigrants.

The overpopulated countries of today must therefore themselves solve the problem, and that must be done at home. There is no dearth of good ideas for the work. The most important of them is to quickly reduce the birth rate. The medical-technical possibilities are already there. The necessary political and socio-economic innovations also do not constitute a big hurdle if the will is there. The rich countries cannot help, and it is not their task. They may help a little with money but the greater part of the task and the burden must be borne by the leaders and people of the problem countries.


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