THE heart-wrenching plight of migrants in the Mediterranean poses fundamental questions for us all, says Joyce McMillan
During last year’s Edinburgh Festival, an almighty row broke out over an event known as Exhibit B, created by the South African artist Brett Bailey. Presented at the Playfair Library, Exhibit B was a performance-cum-installation based on the kinds of exhibits that used to be common in the museums of west European countries, in which the stuffed and preserved heads and bodies of black people from African colonies would be shown, alongside objects illustrating their way of life. In Exhibit B, though, the inanimate figures in these shocking installations were replaced by living actors; and they would make eye contact with their mainly white audience as we walked around the room, fixing us with a steady gaze, holding us inexorably to account.
We have no decent choice here but to step up to our historic responsiblities
For obvious reasons, the event was controversial, and a few weeks later its proposed London run was cancelled. For me, though, the experience of Exhibit B was overwhelming; essentially, it reminded every white person who saw it of the truth that once we look another person in the eye, as a human being, we can no longer sustain the shameful edifice of lies on which racist ideology is built.
And I thought about Exhibit B again this week, when some 1,000 black African people, trying to reach the shores of Europe, drowned in the Mediterranean when their rickety vessel capsized. Concern was expressed, of course; and as I write, EU ministers are gathering in Brussels to discuss a collective response to the crisis – although the ten-point plan on the table does not even mention the reinstatement of Mare Nostrum, the full-scale search-and-rescue service operated by the Italian navy until last year.
Yet it takes just one leap of imagination – one brief effort to look at the world through the eyes of young men and women so desperate for a new life that they will pay anything, and risk everything – to see that, at every point, the conduct of European governments towards our nearest African and Middle Eastern neighbours has been impossible to defend. Our reaction to the disaster itself speaks volumes about the relative value we accord – and historically always have accorded – to white European and black African lives; so far, not a single victim has been graced with a name, and the whole event has received perhaps a tenth of the coverage we might expect if a holiday cruise ship went down with similar loss of life.
Beyond that, our refusal to see migrants from Africa and the Middle East as anything other than foreigners, with no rights to share the wealth and lifestyle Europeans built up over centuries of colonial exploitation in their countries, amounts to a profound and dangerous denial of our own history.
The series of catastrophic misjudgments that has characterised western foreign policy over the past 15 years – in Iraq, Syria and now Libya – has destabilised the entire region, led to the greatest refugee crisis since 1945, and created opportunities which extremist groups like Islamic State are now only too eager to grasp.
And finally, the failure of our governments to confront far right political forces across our continent – to counter the lies they tell about migrants, and to nail the myth that these young, vigorous and desperate-to-work people are somehow costing us money – has led directly to the cancellation of Mare Nostrum, to the betrayal of the most fundamental law of the sea, and to the deaths of hundreds if not thousands.
In the face of this colossal moral and practical failure, it’s therefore almost laughable to see the prime ministers of Europe discussing a document in which the main substantive proposal seems to be to seek authority to raid the North African coast, and destroy the boats used by people-smugglers, in a token attack on a mere symptom of the problem. Nothing will do, here, but a comprehensive international initiative, backed by aid on a Marshall Plan scale, to restabilise the whole region, and to offer a viable future to its people; and for the moment, we apparently lack the will, and the credible international institutions, for any such initiative.
So in the meantime, we have no decent choice but to step up to our historic responsibilities, rescue those in peril on the sea, return the few who want to go back, and – with every nation of the EU sharing equally – offer a future to those who want to remain.
We can be sure that if we do so, they will not be a burden to us for long; when we are old, their children will be providing and caring for us, helping to balance our ageing populations. And despite the language of hate so often peddled in our media – and the obvious danger of ill-regulated economic systems that allow migrants to be exploited as dirt-cheap labour – all across Europe there are communities where people have learned to meet one another across cultural divides, and to welcome newcomers.
We saw it in the now-legendary story of the Glasgow Girls, who fought to save their asylum-seeker schoolfriends from deportation, and we saw it again this week, in the welcome return from Nigeria of a mother and child whose deportation had been fiercely opposed by their UK neighbours.
A few days ago, interviewing Nigel Farage of Ukip, Evan Davis of the BBC was even moved to use the example of Paddington, the little Peruvian bear found at Paddington station, to try reconnect with a kinder and more empathetic British tradition of care for strangers on our shores.
In truth, though, this is a field full of human stories far more inspiring than any Paddington book: tales of astonishing people making remarkable journeys, and bringing with them glittering inner landscapes of hope and fear, talent and ambition, intelligence, creativity, poetry, memory, and music. If we choose to turn away from them – to call them “cockroaches”, refuse eye contact, deny them names and dignity – it is our loss, as much as theirs. And as the grief and anger of their deaths spreads across continents, the price we finally pay for our heartlessness and lack of wisdom will rise inexorably; a great and mounting European debt of cruelty and denial that will never be paid down, except in conflict, hatred, and blood.