For visitors, the Mediterranean is a tranquil blue sea with ample boating, snorkling, swimming and more: the ideal vacation destination. But these gorgeous waters hide a dark secret. For all that they seem alive with color, life and movement, they have come to be known as the “Sea of Death” for the desperate immigrants who attempt to make their way across in search of a better life in Europe. They come crammed into the holds and onto the decks of ships with dubious structural integrity, risking their lives to the hands of human traffickers who profit from those who urgently need to escape one place for another.
In the last 20 years, an estimated 20,000 people have lost their lives in the Mediterranean. The stories of their deaths rarely make the pages of the news, unless an event involves a massive sinking with significant loss of life. The rest die unremarked, with the handfuls of survivors picked up by boaters in the vicinity and sent directly into immigration detention facilities. Activist and commentator Flavia Dzodan, who monitors and reports on immigrant issues in the European Union, has trouble keeping track of all the deaths, even with her eagle eye for news: a sharp testimony to how little the European Union cares about the high cost of its dysfunctional immigration policy.
The European Union has found itself in a strange political situation as it struggles with the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment across member nations while also balancing human rights critiques. Activists express concern about conditions in immigration detention in the European Union, as well as the handling of immigrants in general from border patrol to social services. In Germany, several major court cases involving immigrants, discrimination and abuse are underway, while Britain is contending with anti-immigrant signage on mobile trucks.
Meanwhile, Dutch extremist conservative Geert Wilders is proposing a right-wing coalition in the EU Parliament, which would allow him and others like him to gain much more of a foothold in mainstream European politics. With the force of a coalition, they have many more opportunities to shape policy, which could equate to even more dangerous conditions for immigrants and their families. On immigration, at least, European politics appear to be regressing in many nations despite the work of activists concerned about the social implications of laws making it harder to immigrate, harder to find work and harder to participate fully in society.
Positioned so close to regions of social and political unrest, Europe is viewed as a place of refuge by people seeking new lives, but what they find there is often radically different — if they make it there at all. The draconian anti-immigration policies used to keep foreign nationals out of the EU have created a situation where the Mediterranean resembles a grim graveyard much more than a holiday destination, and the EU desperately needs to reevaluate its politics before it’s too late.
The situation across the Atlantic should be a warning sign to the United States. Already, immigrant deaths on and around the border with Mexico are common, between immigrants suffocating in vehicles as they cross the border and people dying in the extreme conditions of the Southwest desert. Like undocumented immigrants into the EU, people with no legal immigration status in the United States are exploited because of their vulnerabilities, with no way to fight back without risking deportation.
If conditions don’t change in the U.S. and the EU, the consequences could be severe for the most marginalized among the immigrant community. Already, hate crimes against undocumented immigrants are on the rise, illustrating that poor immigration policy contributes to poor social attitudes, and these are only likely to get worse. Is Europe ready to rise to the challenge of immigration reform, and will the United States do the same?
Photo credit: Charles Nadeau