Another day, another drowning

An article in The Guardian catches my attention: `43 African migrants drown in heavy seas off Yemen coast’. Somalis and Ethiopians looking for a way out of persecution and poverty. So familiar an event it’s hardly a news story – the Gulf of Aden is a notoriously dangerous crossing. Despite massive public information campaigns in recent years, 309 refugees and migrants died in 2009 while journeying from Somalia to Yemen. But yet they keep coming. At least 77 000 migrants arrived by sea from Somali in the same year, a fact not unconnected to the increasing impenetrability of the Mediterranean borders of “Fortress Europe”.
These 43 deaths will be swiftly forgotten: unlikely to merit even a footnote in migration policy. Yet the manner of their reporting strikes me, because it underlines the extent to which we can conveniently label their deaths – and our responsibilities – away. The dead were “migrants” looking for `a gateway to wealthier parts of the Middle East and the west.’ The implication seems to be that their journey was a choice, an economic calculation – and their deaths a sad consequence but the result of their own, voluntary movement.
But at least some of those dead weren’t “just” migrants, but refugees, like the three Somali survivors rescued from the wreckage. And even if the majority of those who drowned were Ethiopian migrants moving in hope of a better life, why our obsession with drawing this moral distinction between all “refugees” and all “migrants” ? If you flee extreme poverty in search of a means of survival, is this less worthy of protection than those seeking sanctuary from persecution? Is it really more of a choice? Is Yemen really a promised land of opportunity?
Many might ask what the drowning of 43 Somalis and Ethiopians off the Yemeni coast has to do with the UK’s refugee and migration policies. And sure, there’s not direct line of responsibility. But I think this language of this small, almost unnoticed article – above all the absence of that word “refugee” – reflects a wider cultural willingness to insist that human movement is a choice. If we can believe migration is a choice, we don’t need to examine the morality of our own restrictions on migration – or our deportation of `illegal migrants’ from Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and other desperate places.
These migrations aren’t a “choice”. Given the reality of huge global inequality, migrants won’t stop trying to come to our developed, rich economies. Legislation can only push these migrants into irregular, risky, clandestine routes beyond the reach of states – and without safety. If we really want to “manage migration” we need above all to admit that migration is inevitable, but irregular and unsafe movement that ends with children screaming is not.
There was a second boat in the Gulf of Aden. The words of the coastguard on the search for its passengers catch something of their invisibility, their relative powerlessness and the world’s lack of interest in their story. “It’s not known in which direction the wind took them, and their fate is unknown”.