Europe's moral quandary, the migrants who risk all for freedom

Europe's leaders are to meet in an emergency summit today to try to quell the rising tide of asylum seekers almost literally washing up on its shores. But as Nahlah Ayed writes, unless you understand the true desperation propelling these migrants, don't expect to accomplish much.

European leaders meeting in emergency session to try to quell crossings

European leaders meet to try to quell migrant crossings

8 years ago
Duration 6:08
Italian officials estimate that over half a million people are in Libya solely to wait their turn to make the sea crossing to Europe

What a heap of scorn was poured on world leaders this week for the flood of Middle East and African migrants landing on Europe's shores.

David Cameron. Nicholas Sarkozy. Barack Obama. And, by extension, let us not forget Stephen Harper.

It was their collective decision to bomb Libya (the reasoning goes) that turned that country into the chaotic — and preferred — last port of call for illegal migrants intent on making Europe home.

It is a compelling argument: The country is clearly chaotic. And the number of migrants flocking there has no doubt multiplied.

Italian officials estimate that well over half a million people are in Libya solely to wait their turn to make the sea crossing to Europe.

A migrant woman and her child take part in a candlelight vigil to commemorate the migrants who died at sea in Sliema, outside Valletta, earlier this week. Public outrage over the deaths peaked this week after up to 900 migrants died last Sunday when their boat sank on its way to Europe from Libya. (Reuters)

Many more than last year have successfully crossed, and 30 times more have died. It is a seemingly constant stream now that tests both Europe's patience, and conscience.

Libya poses a problem for Europe because a boat ride from the capital Tripoli to the Italian island of Lampedusa, the closest European foothold, is less than 320 kilometres away. And the smugglers seem to act with impunity.

But if a disordered Libya didn't exist, there would be some other place.

A boat on its way to Italy that started to sink yesterday, with nearly 500 migrants on board, started its journey in Egypt — a country ruled now by a former military man who has good relations with the West.

That's just the latest of so many examples dating back years.

For migrants seeking the European dream, there is always some other place. And some other way. And there are clearly always many people willing to take the risks to get here.

So many Waels

Like "Wael," a middle-aged Iraqi I met a few years ago.

He had paid thousands of dollars to be led on foot from Iraq through Turkey, then spirited on to Western Europe by men he didn't know.

Everything about the journey — the dangers, the health risks, the chance of imprisonment, even death — should have dissuaded him. But he went through it anyway because the life he had as a member of an ethnic minority in a country ruled then by a violent, vindictive regime was just not an option.

He was after a better life, yes. But in large part, it was the chance for protection that drew him — protection of the right to live freely, without fear of persecution or state violence.

Over the years I've met many Waels from a variety of conflict zones.

Sometimes they are young men who pay thousands of dollars for fake visas, fake passports, or refugee families handing over their life's savings for a supposedly expedited meeting with UN placement officials.

They will give almost anything for opportunity, or for a day of peace. And they will take inordinate risks for a chance at a lifetime with indisputable human rights.

Interrupting their movement may well be beyond the control of those European leaders attending an urgent summit in Brussels today to try to stem the migrant tide.

Because short of ending the West's tradition of safeguarding the basic rights of asylum — a luxury in many of the places these migrants come from — that influx will likely never stop. 

Today's conflicts bigger

Conflicts in the Middle East and Africa have long sent their people scattering.

But today those conflicts are bigger, longer and deadlier. Crucially, they are also driving refuge-seekers into neighbouring countries that are especially unwelcoming or even hostile — many of them with conflicts and dictatorships of their own.

In those places, finding work and schooling are a challenge. Getting long-term documentation is nearly impossible.

The authorities are abusive and imprisonment is a common and easy answer. Religious and ethnic minorities have an even harder time of it.

Faced with this kind of displacement, as well as poverty and indignity, it is easy to see how gambling with one's life becomes the only way.

Short of rejecting all asylum claims altogether  — or adequately helping share the burden of the displaced with the countries in those regions, or ending the conflicts altogether — whatever schemes European leaders come up with are unlikely to have much impact on such a powerful compulsion.

Any decisions made without taking that into account will probably only push the next group of migrants — and the criminals who would exploit them — to simply find a new way.

'I love the freedom'

Someone I know as Ahmed was aware of the risks when he paid $3,000 US to board a dilapidated boat from Turkey four years ago.

He later watched as the smugglers transferred passengers — most of whom, according to Italian authorities, didn't know how to swim — onto rubber boats and left them to fend for themselves.

He watched as some of them fell into the water and drowned. Recalling that now, he constantly fights back a flood of emotion.

Ahmed has been in the Sicilian city of Catania since, living, ironically, on the deck of one of the ghost migrant ships that actually made it to Italy and is now abandoned to rust in the harbor.

He gets angry describing how he is still waiting for documentation to allow him to work. He also admits it gets chilly sleeping on the metal hull of a boat forever moored now in stagnant water.

Yet at times in our chat, he is simply beaming. "I love the freedom," he says. 

It is why so many will keep coming, as long as someone is willing to at least consider their case.

The prize at the other end is too precious. And the bleakness of what they leave behind is intolerable. And no one, not even Europe's leaders, can change that overnight.

RAW: Migrant boat shipwreck

8 years ago
Duration 1:07
Three migrants drown after their sailboat runs aground off a Greek island


Nahlah Ayed

Host of CBC Ideas

Nahlah Ayed is the host of the nightly CBC Radio program Ideas. A veteran of foreign reportage, she's spent nearly a decade covering major world events from London, and another decade covering upheaval across the Middle East. Ayed was previously a parliamentary reporter for The Canadian Press.