Illegal immigrants are not just numbers

Friday 01/05/2015

From the moment they land on the shores of Italy, illegal immigrants are numbers. The mostly African and Arab young men do not carry passports. They are assigned identification numbers as they are processed upon arrival by security and health officials. They are assigned different numbers if they are in body bags. Behind each number there is a human life unfilled, a dream that went nowhere.

There is nothing scarier to Eu­ropeans than the desperation that drives the poor and dark-skinned migrants to put their lives — and their meagre savings — on the line to cross the sea in search of a better life. It certainly does not help that the migrants’ departure shores in North Africa are associated with poverty, violence and terrorism. The fear is only compounded.

But even if it is unrealistic to expect any country to welcome with open arms the thousands of illegal migrants making their way by the boatful to its shores, no long-term solution to the immigra­tion problem can be found without understanding what drives the im­migrants to such desperation.

There is an explosive contradic­tion between the closed borders of Europe and the open means of com­munication bringing images of the better lives in Europe to the living rooms, tents and shacks, north and south of the Sahara.

For decades, the young men of the Maghreb and Africa have been bombarded by messages of the good life in the West. In their bid to widen the markets for its goods and services and enlarge its scope of cultural influence, Western nations promoted their standards of living and value systems south of their borders.

The teenagers and children of the Maghreb and Africa are the frustrated recipients of such mes­sages. They are the young Arab adults who cannot marry or date for lack of a steady income. They are the school dropouts with no way back into the socioeconomic system, today or tomorrow. They are the minors roaming the streets of Tunis, Casablanca and Algiers, with no parents to look for them when they do not come home at the end of the day. They are the Syrians and Iraqis displaced by war and de­prived of a place they can call home. They are the same people who would rather self-immolate than stop selling “Made in China” products without a permit. Despite lots of promises, many of the young men and women with university diplomas but no job opportunities have no option but to board the rickety boats and attempt to cross the sea. They are the end product of decades of failed social development policies implemented by ill-advised local elites, often with the short-sighted encouragement of foreign organisations with budgets to spare. Countries on both shores of the Mediterranean share respon­sibility for the current tragedy. For too long, they preferred expediency over long-term solutions.

There are tens of thousands of would-be immigrants in the villages and towns of the Maghreb, many parts of the Middle East and the Af­rican continent. They spend the day sipping cheap coffee and looking for an unscrupulous smuggler who will give them a shot at a high-risk crossing of the sea. And if they are fortunate enough not to end up as food-for-fish at the bottom of the sea, they will earn an identification number at an internment camp in Lampadusa or Sicily.