Mediterranean migrant deaths – testing the limits of responsibility

The recent deaths of hundreds of migrants on boats in the Mediterranean are first of all a tragedy for the people involved and their families – also of course the poor survivors plus the Italians and others who are retrieving the bodies.

But the phenomenon is much wider than this, and many are describing it as a disgrace in relation to British policy. Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper for example called Home Secretary Theresa May "immoral" for having participated in dropping EU search and rescue operations; plenty of others have piled in behind her.

Our demands that something must be done morphs very quickly into that we must do something – specifically that we must provide upgraded rescue services for all these migrants who are paying big money to traffickers to get to Europe. It is the classic humanitarian response and is perhaps the only practical way to prevent a lot more of these disasters from happening.

It has had me wondering however if in many people’s minds we’ve reverted to a sort of colonial mindset: that we’ve gone back to the times of Empire when Britain was responsible for what happened all over the world.

By taking on responsibility for migrants crossing the Med – and calling others ‘immoral’ for being reluctant to do so – we are spreading our net of jurisdiction beyond our own borders – and indeed beyond the EU’s borders – to those troubled places where these people are coming from. The choices and risks these people are making are taken on as our responsibility.

No doubt there is some truth and goodness in that, not least when Britain, France, the United States and others conducted a bombing campaign to help kick out Colonel Gadaffi in Libya, the now-broken state where many of the traffickers and their cargoes are setting out from. The world is an increasingly mobile, globalised place where problems in one country have consequences all over.

But we should be wary about spreading our fields of responsibility like this – and honest about what we are doing when we do so. By bombing Libya and taking responsibility for the welfare of migrants wealthy enough to pay for passage to Europe, we are taking jurisdiction beyond our borders. If it’s our responsibility for their safety crossing the Med, then surely it’s our responsibility for their safety in Libya, Eritrea and Nigeria where they are coming from? And if we’re responsible for the wealthier ones, surely we should pay some attention to the poorer folks who cannot afford the passage?

This comes to the crux of the liberal universalist world-view, which sees happenings in elsewhere in the world as of equal importance to what’s going on in our own countries and on our own streets. This rationalist viewpoint is absolutely correct from an objective point of view – what Thomas Nagel called ‘the view from nowhere’ – but fails to account for people and governments as they really are: as bounded, local and limited in scope. It is completely unrealistic to expect me or you or ‘the media’ or government to give equal prominence to what happens in Eritrea as what happens in our own families, streets, to our compatriots and fellow citizens. This is not a heartless thing to say; after all we wouldn’t expect an Eritrean to give a damn about what happens in Britain.

Liberal universalists don’t believe in these limits though; they don’t believe in borders and boundaries to our interest and intervention. They believe that their universal rationality should be applied everywhere. Transfer this view to government and you have governments which break free from their erstwhile borders and wield their power all over: a neo-colonialist approach.

And that begs a bigger question.

For when so many states in Africa and the Middle East are in various states of collapse with little or no prospect of recovery (unless you take the triumph of Islamic extremism as recovery), what should and what can the so-called ‘civilized’ world do?

If we are serious in our liberal universalism - in seeing these world situations as important to us as the more mundane situations we have to deal with within our own borders - we should be making plans to use military might to take over these failed states and impose ‘good’ government on them. A version of this has already happened in Sierra Leone, to which Britain has given significant governmental assistance for many years since Tony Blair’s intervention there in 2000.

You would perhaps say in response: “But doing that would be completely impractical and we could not afford it.”

True, but it would be consistent with trying to address the problem as a problem within that (unrealistic and utopian) world-view.

I don’t have the answers to this specific problem of migrants dying on boats in the Med, and I don’t envy those in Europe trying to figure out what to do about it. This globalised world of ours is so complex that it’s difficult to get our heads around.

But I think we would do well to start re-emphasising where responsibility lies. Migrants entrusting their lives to traffickers are taking a risk, and we in Britain are not primarily responsible for that risk.

So blaming our politicians and media for migrant deaths is unfair. If we want to take responsibility then we should be honest about what we are doing and be prepared to confront the phenomena as a whole.

Alas, I think the traffickers will win out since it looks politically impossible for European governments to risk more migrants dying like they have been doing recently. Likewise, no serious intervention will take place in the countries of origin, so the migrants will keep coming.

One of my particular concerns is that governments in Africa and elsewhere take responsibility for their own jurisdictions and for their own people - and I don’t think the tendency of Western liberals to ‘leap in’ to take control in other countries through state- and NGO-related activity is always altogether helpful. The worst kinds of rulers are often only too happy to outsource state functions to outsiders who will take their place – and even better if they provide the funding. I think we may be seeing a similar process going on with migration. Populations across Africa and the Middle East have been exploding, and it seems that governments are only too happy to export their people in order to lessen their load. Again, we can see a phenomenon of responsibility – and population pressures – being transferred from one jurisdiction to another.

For more on not-dissimilar topic, see Immigration and the left page.


  1. ''it seems that governments are only too happy to export their people in order to lessen their load''

    One of those governments is the Polish government. It was when I was a migrant in Poland that my previously laissez faire view changed completely.

    The hypocrisy is breathtaking:

    Mr Rogala admits that immigration might not be a matter of choice, given the economic circumstances.
    He has reservations shared by western European politicians whose countries have already lived through an influx. And the British model is not one he is keen to copy.
    In no way is he suggesting, he says, "that we want to become a multicultural society. Both Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy admitted that multi-culturalism had not passed the test".


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