The Boat People Saga

The umpteenth chapter in the Boat People saga offers little hope for a fresh approach to the African migrant crisis.

The Boat People Saga Migrants
Refugees on a boat crossing the Mediterranean sea. Mstyslav Chernov/Unframe, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

From time to time, the Boat People saga raises its head and we briefly think of the image itself, an overloaded, unsafe vessel heading for the rough sea — a metaphor for desperation and hope, a metaphor as old as boats.

Boat People, they call them, those unfortunates who cling to a last vestige of hope by surrendering their destiny and their meagre savings to the scafisti, an Italian word from scafo meaning ‘speed-boat’ and now synonymous with criminals who smuggle people by sea into the southern European countries facing the Mediterranean. They’ve been a constant flow for many years and, at this point, they rarely make the news unless there’s a major catastrophe or international incident. Hundreds of mainly tall, lean, young men and fewer women and children, bare-foot or in flip-flops, are regularly intercepted and accompanied to the harbors to be identified and tested for ailments and injuries. Others are dumped off rickety boats a few metres from the shores of southern Italy and left to wade ashore, drown or be rescued while the scafisti head straight back to international waters to avoid being arrested. These people will have endured weeks, months, even years of hardship and abuse before being herded on a boat somewhere in the North of Africa with the vague promise of being taken to Germany, England, France. Some may have little idea where they are when they land.

A story like the ongoing tragedy in the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa only makes world headlines when we have the ‘perfect storm’: the victims to grieve for, the media to immortalize the pain, the villains to blame, the policy makers to get on their high horses, society to be polarized by the thorny question. They’re all there as the world watches the Italian Coastguard pull corpses out of the water and lay them out on the narrow pier in the last southern outpost of Europe with its population of 4,500. Corpses of men and women who believed in the promise of a safe passage to that vague destination — Europe.

Boat People are a constant in history. A few examples suffice. The mid-19th century exodus out of famine-torn Ireland. Men and women crammed into what became known as coffin ships bound for America with no status other than being dirt poor. Thousands died on route. Thousands more made it across. In 1947, the refugee ship The Exodus bound for British administered Palestine was seized by the British navy. Its passengers were deported back to Europe and ended up in Germany and were given shelter in the abandoned Nazi concentration camps. In 1960, the incident was made into a movie of the same name starring Paul Newman. In south-east Asia an exodus of asylum seekers ensued after the 1965-1975 wars. 1.5 million are estimated to have fled Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Death statistics stand at about 200,000. Intercepted boats bulging with desperate humans were sunk offshore by scafisti who fled in dinghies. The USA accepted about 800,000 refugees. Over the next forty years, 3 million people would take to the sea. Many were repatriated, either voluntarily or otherwise. The last Boat People in the area, from Thailand, were repatriated in 2009.

Boatloads of migrants often disappear, unnoticed, trying to reach Australia from the Indonesian archipelago. The Australian government endeavors to intercept migrant boats at their departure ports. Christmas Island is an Australian territory in the Indian Ocean with a population of 2,000. In the late 1980s, boats carrying asylum seekers began landing there. The government quickly passed a law stating that asylum seekers arriving on Christmas Island could not automatically apply for refugee status. This allows the Australian Navy to relocate them to other countries as part of the so-called Pacific Solution. And on and on. People from mainland China trying to reach Hong Kong. People from Sri Lanka take boats for India. People from Haiti and Cuba have tried to reach the USA. Stories are similar, only the geographic and the chronological details change.

Getting back to the present Italian crisis. Migrants transferred off Lampedusa island are relocated in holding centers in Sicily and Calabria where they wait, months or even years, for the longed-for refugee status which, according to the Dublin Convention, must be granted, where possible, by the country of entry to the EU. Many give up and flee the camps. They make it on buses, trains, trucks up through the Boot to the large cities of the north. And then their next nightmare begins. Without documents they can’t get a job. Without a job they can’t get lodgings. They just become invisible. Despised, or at best ignored, they scrounge the bins, they hustle, they steal, they sleep rough, they beg, they help each other, they wait, they hope. But there is no other boat to board.

The continent of Europe would fit into Africa 3 times. So we can maybe visualize Africa as this enormous crumbling and dangerous castle and the people inside want to leave and reach the nearby elegant townhouse where, as they see it, everyone inside is living in comfort and safety.

People elsewhere, including politicians, aid-workers, young enthusiastic NGO volunteers are, however, attracted to the castle. They tend to forget the sheer enormity of Africa, composed, according to the United Nations, of 55 countries some democratic, some not. Over the years we hear of “Aid for Africa,” “Africa this,” “Africa that,”  it’s time for Africa.” Even the BBC World News presents a once weekly thirty-minute news program called Focus on Africa. It’s so generic it becomes meaningless. Even tiny San Marino would need more than thirty minutes to cover its news. Speaking here about Africa in these overly simplistic terms may be seen as a continuation of what the debate on the continent has been for too long. It doesn’t have to be like this.

Addressing African affairs as a unified whole is pointless and wrong. Inside the African Continent there are differences comparable to those between many European countries, to cite a few, Italy vis-à-vis Albania or Bulgaria vis-à-vis Sweden. While the African states south of the Mediterranean are Europe oriented, the average poor person in sub-Saharan Africa is estimated to live on only $o.70 per day. Some studies attribute this divergence to foreign governments and companies, other studies to unsuccessful economic liberalization programs and bad domestic government policies more than to external factors. A number of African countries are on a par with the so-called developed world and internal racism is just as common as it is elsewhere. Prejudice owes its roots to ethnic, physical, religious and power-based differences. It over-simplifies the picture to say that colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries are at the root of all the continent’s troubles but, even so, those same colonial countries left it in a much worse state than they found it in.

A Harvard University study led by professor Calestous Juma showed that Africa could feed itself by making the transition from importer to self-sufficiency. “African agriculture is at the crossroads,” said Mr. Juma. “We have come to the end of a century of policies that favored Africa’s exportation of raw materials and importation of food. Africa is now starting to focus on agricultural innovation as its new engine for regional trade and prosperity.”

From 1995 to 2005, Africa’s rate of economic growth increased, averaging 5% in 2005. Some countries experienced higher growth rates, notably Angola, Sudan and Equatorial Guinea, all three of which had recently begun extracting their petroleum reserves or had expanded their oil extraction capacity. The continent is sitting on immense wealth. It is believed to hold 90% of the world’s cobalt, platinum, chromium, 70% of its tantalite, 64% of its manganese, 50% of its gold and 30% of its uranium. The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has 70% of the world’s coltan, considered the devil’s mineral mined by ’volunteer slaves’ who lose their lives working in inhumane conditions. Most mobile phones in the world are made with elements refined from this mineral. The DRC also has more than 30% of the world’s diamond reserves. Guinea is the world’s largest exporter of bauxite. As the growth in Africa has been driven mainly by services and not manufacturing or agriculture, it has been growth without jobs and without reduction in poverty levels.

In recent years, the People’s Republic of China has built increasingly stronger ties with African nations. Chinese companies invested billions in Africa and investments continue to increase. Beijing is now seen as a reliable ally by many countries in the east of the Continent, a fact which somewhat irritates the other major powers, the US in particular.

Prior to the decolonization movements of the post-World War II era, Europeans were represented in every part of Africa. Decolonization during the 1960s and 1970s often resulted in the mass emigration of European-descended settlers out of Africa — especially from Algeria and Morocco (1.6 million pieds-noirs in North Africa), Kenya, Congo, Rhodesia, Mozambique and Angola. By the end of 1977, more than one million Portuguese were thought to have returned from Africa. Nevertheless, White Africans remain an important minority in many African states, particularly South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Namibia.

Following the end of colonialism, nearly all African countries adopted official languages that originated outside the continent, although several countries also granted legal recognition to indigenous languages. In numerous countries, African English and African French are used for communication in the public sphere such as government, commerce, education and the media. Arabic, Portuguese, Afrikaans and Spanish are examples of languages that trace their origin to outside of Africa, and that are used by millions of Africans today, both in the public and private spheres. Italian is spoken by some in former Italian colonies in Africa. German is spoken in Namibia.

Many aspects of traditional African cultures have become less practiced in recent years as a result of years of neglect and suppression by colonial and post-colonial regimes. There is now a resurgence in the attempts to rediscover and revaluate African traditional cultures, under such movements as the African Renaissance, led by Thabo Mbeki, as well as the increasing recognition of traditional spiritualism through decriminalization of Voodoo and other forms of spirituality.

In conclusion, we can only ask what if?

What if The African Union lived up to its aims? To promote the unity and solidarity of the African States; to coordinate and intensify their cooperation and efforts to achieve a better life for the peoples of Africa; to defend their sovereignty, their territorial integrity and independence; to eradicate all forms of colonialism from Africa.

What if The EU, the US, and China stopped offering platitudes and providing the Continent with highly skilled foreign workers from abroad for the top posts in development projects and instead educated and trained native workforces to be self-sufficient at every step of a project?

What if the developed countries could get over their innate racism and prejudice and allowed for the free flow of people between neighboring countries?

What if down-to-earth facts about the dire circumstances faced by undocumented, illegal immigrants in countries of arrival were provided to citizens in the countries where the exodus is greatest?

What if we in first and second world countries learned a little bit about the single nations on the African continent rather than just barely being able to find some exotic holiday destination there?

When even a couple of these ‘what ifs’ become reality, Africa will emerge as an entity to be reckoned with. Africa’s population has rapidly increased over the last 40 years, and consequently, it is relatively young. In some African states, half or more of the population is under 25 years of age. The total number of people in Africa grew from 221 million in 1950 to over 1 billion in 2021. In the various ageing Japans and Italys of the world youthful African nations will aim to be in a position where not only the basics but the comforts can be sought after, where positions of prestige need not be reserved for the élite, often educated outside their own country. When people realize that their future can be more than this present, then the whole world will be in for a revolution.

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