What is our moral obligation to the stranger?

Bridget Anderson

For centuries this question has haunted European thought, and as new fences are erected and bodies wash up on the shores of the Mediterranean its implications reassert themselves with renewed urgency. For over twenty years the outsourcing of migration controls has meant that European publics have been protected from the practical reality of forced displacement and the economic desperation that is now showing up on holiday beaches. Agreements with source and transit countries, readmission agreements, the creation of migration management policies and facilities in countries of origin have kept ethical dilemmas away from the general public. Colonialism with its ongoing legacies of inequality, nationalisms and artificial borders may be a critical drive of contemporary global mobility, but it was largely been relegated to the history books and responsibilities to those caught up in its legacies ignored. However, memories of Iraq, Libya and Syria, and the involvement of European powers and their proxies in the current destabilisation are still fresh. That is, it is difficult to say that the current mass displacement is ‘nothing to do with us’. Raising the question of how the prevention of entry of people from conflict zones is compatible with European responsibilities, or, even more generally, how border controls are compatible with human rights.

The past decade has seen the emergence of trafficking and modern day slavery as a means of managing this contradiction. Anti-trafficking has proved to be a common cause for a wide range of actors, and a rare patch of common ground for those concerned with the rights of undocumented migrants, and state authorities. Anti-trafficking (and more recently, anti-slavery) laws, present the border as a point of humanitarian intervention, where states and NGOs can identify and rescue those subject to abuse. This approach has been very much to the fore in the current situation at Europe’s borders. After a meeting in April of EU Interior and Foreign Ministers discussing the Mediterranean, Italian PM Matteo Renzi called those who enabled the Mediterranean crossings the ‘slave drivers of the 21st century’; UK PM David Cameron blamed criminals ‘managing, promoting and selling this trade, this trade in human life’; while FRONTEX, the European agency charged with co-ordinating the management of the EU’s external borders, described people smugglers as ‘latter day slave merchants’. ‘Slavery’, like ‘trafficking’ appears to capture the combination of mobility, gross exploitation, and ‘foreign-ness’ and it tells a powerful story that everyone can agree on. The European Commission, the Parliament, EU member states, the media, religious groups, trades unions, right and left alike all abhor slavery and want to stop the appalling suffering it generates.

While the images of slavery may be startlingly similar to those used by anti-slave trade activists of the 17th and 18th centuries, the experiences and contexts of the people involved are quite different. These boats may be crammed and overcrowded, but the people have not been kidnapped from their homes. They have often paid thousands of euros to escape war and violence in Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea, or they have travelled from Niger and Senegal in search of more opportunities and more sustainable lives. They want to move (O’Connell Davidson 2015). Furthermore, the movement across the Mediterranean today is, in contrast to the 18th century transatlantic slave ships, an illegalised movement. The mobility of transatlantic slaves was an involuntary but legal movement, while the mobility of migrants across the borders of the European Union is a voluntary but illegalised movement.

Thus what the language of ‘slavery’ and ‘trafficking’ does is ignore the crucial point, that it is the enforcement of border regimes that puts people at risk of exploitation and death. That people would of course prefer to get on plane or train with a visa, but that those holding passports from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia, are subject to the toughest visa regimes in the world. Critically the political argument for these visa regimes rests on the fear of a ‘tragedy of the commons’. How will European states be able to preserve their welfare states in the face of such tremendous global need, particularly at a time of retrenchment and austerity? This framing enables us to avoid both the question, how can we afford to intervene militarily but not offer humanitarian protection, and perhaps the even bigger question about growing inequality, not just between states, but between individuals.

This blog was first published on the Oxford University Press blog.


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