In October 2013, a ship carrying migrants sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa. Some 300 people drowned.
It was not the first time that migrants had drowned in the Mediterranean. In fact, at that time it was estimated that in the previous 25 years at least 20,000 people had died trying to reach the shores of Europe. The real figure was most likely much higher. But that sinking in October 2013 was the first time that such a tragedy had truly impressed itself upon the conscience of Europe.
European leaders expressed anger and outrage. The Italian government declared a national day of mourning. “I hope that this will be the last time we see a tragedy of this kind,” said Jean-Claude Mignon, head of the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly. The disaster would be “a spur to action”, promised the UN secretary general at the time, Ban Ki-moon.
After the tragedy, I wrote that such leaders may well be “sincere in their expressions of anger and grief”. And yet, I observed, “one cannot but be cynical about all the lamentation. The horror of Lampedusa did not come out of the blue. Much of the responsibility lies with the policies pursued by European nations.”
I concluded: “The next time there is another tragedy as at Lampedusa – and there will be a next time and a next time after that – and politicians across Europe express shock and grief and anger, remember this: they could have helped prevent it and chose not to. That is the real disgrace.” And there has been a next time and a next time after that. In fact, it has happened so many times since that such tragedies barely make the news any more.
That mass drowning off Lampedusa in 2013 is an apposite place from which to start a discussion on the dehumanising of the Other. Too often when we discuss hateful portrayals of migrants or Muslims or other minorities, we focus on the far right, or on groups such as Pegida, or on countries such as Hungary and politicians such as Viktor Orbán. It is certainly important that we call out such organisations and politicians and eviscerate their arguments.
But we need also to recognise that the truth about dehumanisation is far more uncomfortable and far closer to home. The ideas and policies promoted by the far right and by populist anti-immigration figures have not come out of nowhere. They have become acceptable because the groundwork has already been laid, and continues to be maintained, by mainstream politicians and commentators. [Continue reading…]