On Wednesday evening, twenty-seven people, including three children, died by drowning in the English Channel. It was the single greatest loss of life in the channel since the International Organization for Migration began collecting data in 2014 — surpassing the drowning last year of a Kurdish-Iranian family, including a fifteen-month-old child later found on the Norwegian coast. The tragedy comes days after a charity appears to have been pressured into pulling out of supporting migrants in Calais, France, by a government bent on making political capital by attacking Channel migrants.
On the same day, a boat containing around four hundred people began taking on water in the Mediterranean. When monitors raised the alarm, the Libyan Coast Guard — a close partner in the European Union’s efforts to prevent migration — was reported by the refugees on board the sinking vessel to have opened fire on them. Even the following day, after several on board were reported dead, no rescue mission had been mounted, though Tunisian authorities eventually intervened.
These were not isolated cases. In three separate incidents last week, people seeking safety drowned en route to the Canary Islands. In Poland, the body of a teenage Syrian was laid to rest in a small cemetery. He died in a forest patrolled by thousands of police and troops combing the country’s border with Belarus.
All this is a partial snapshot of one normal week in November.
Doubtless, preventable deaths occur in high numbers every day. This week saw dozens killed in fighting outside al-Makha in Yemen, in the Ethiopian insurgency, and in airstrikes in Syria. Thousands continue to die from diseases for which cheap and easy cures exist, and from the effects of drawn out environmental crises. Under capitalism, our way of life is premised on body counts.
Yet there is a peculiar type of preventability to deaths at borders. Wars ostensibly have purposes. Diseases and hurricanes are natural blights, even if their spread and damage are determined by nonnatural factors. The people who drowned this week did so to protect an ideology and nothing else, for the sake of upholding a set of social practices that determine who can and cannot enter a place.
On the same day as the Channel deaths, the UK’s home secretary announced a new detention center in Derwentside, Durham — joining an archipelago of degrading and dehumanizing prisons for those who do make it across the Channel and exercise their legal right to seek asylum. This week’s deaths were themselves a consequence of policy choices; yet today we see British and French politicians professing regret about these terrible events in the Channel, even as they propose ever tighter controls in response. We know that not one of these leaders’ expressions of sadness will result in a shift away from policies designed to produce human misery.
One of those leaders, Boris Johnson, recently claimed that uncontrolled immigration brought down the Roman Empire. Underlying the historical absurdity of this statement (and its implication that uncontrolled immigration could be the end of the British Empire — which he seems to believe still exists) is the idea that Rome had borders to defend. But immutable as borders seem, they haven’t existed for very long at all. The conventional story of European politics tells you that countries — territories governed by states representing communities — were formalized by the Peace of Westphalia in 1649, ending the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War with a new settlement. In reality, most European states were not “Westphalian” until the mid-nineteenth century.
Nor did the existence of territorial borders imply violent controls. Immigration legislation was pioneered in Britain in the early twentieth century in response to antisemitic panics about Jewish immigration to the East End. Passports emerged during World War I. The Westphalian nation-state model only conquered the world when decolonization straitjacketed Europe’s former dominions into normative countries, largely defined with little regard for the complexity of history and geography — and with sometimes violent consequences.
Within our lifetimes, “borders” still simply meant lines on maps, or at least airport checkpoints. Now borders are evolving into checkpoints thousands of miles from people’s home countries, immigration raids in workplaces, and passport checks in hospitals — surveillance systems capable of tracking every citizen under the rubric of protecting us from illegal immigration, and vast networks of insight and control stretching deep inside and far beyond nations. If it might seem more reasonable to let people die for an idea as old as the Roman Empire, in reality these developments are new.
We can’t just let everyone in, we’re told — as if the only choices are tolerating mass death or an unmanaged opening of all gates tomorrow. This appeal to impossibility masks a refusal to seek solutions and alternatives. COP26 may have been disappointing, but at least there was a serious, well-covered attempt to reach a global compact on carbon emissions. No such widely televised, politically pressurized event exists for the world’s 80 million externally displaced people (a fraction of those to be displaced under even moderate climate change scenarios). The problem remains unsolved because we have chosen not to solve it.
This absurd lie of impossibility, that a civilization as advanced as ours cannot sustainably cater to the relatively tiny fraction of people fleeing violence and extreme poverty, is used to cover for the fact that we live in a system able to tolerate huge quantities of pain and death — and not only tolerate but profit from, if the margins of the firms selling weapons and walls to keep out the desperate are anything to go by.
The speechwriter to former European Council president Donald Tusk concludes at the end of a long polemic, “The heart will have its day, but the head will always quietly insist: ‘Yes, but what then?’” In a grown-up, pragmatic world, we drown people because it is the path of least resistance. You can pick Tusk’s apologetic pragmatism or Trump’s unabashed bluster, depending on which Donald’s aesthetic and semantic choices make you feel better. But this is only politics as culture; the position being defended by these arguments is the same. There even seems to be tacit continent-wide approval for Poland’s new plan to build a wall.
“You’d Only Encourage Them”
The premise in the practicality argument — unspoken by liberals and pushed by conservatives — is that letting them in would only create more of them. This is ground zero for a logic repeated elsewhere across public policy discourse. We’re all familiar with it. We must cut child benefits, even if it appears cruel, because we will only encourage the mother to have more children, which is unsustainable, and in any case, she could simply make more responsible choices. In the United States, supposedly serious people argue that an entitlement to health care would cause people to deliberately seek injury. People seeking asylum who can be othered multiple times — by their race, by their poverty and desperation, by their noncitizenship — deserve to lose their lives. But this logic is not uniquely applied to vulnerable migrants; it is simply a distilled version of the ever advanced portrayal of a grasping underclass that cannot be helped for its own good.
Who drowns? In the worst Mediterranean shipwreck of 2020, Sudanese poet Abdel Wahab Latinos lost his life. He predicted his death in verse: “You’ll die at sea / Your head rocked by the roaring waves, your body swaying in the water. . . . In the prime of youth you’ll go, shy of your 30th birthday.” The Sudan he left is receiving millions of euros to arm its notoriously violent security forces to prevent people from coming north. Meanwhile, in January 2018, Turkish helicopters took off to participate in the bombardment of Afrin, outfitted by an Italian-Turkish defense partnership. In April 2020, Saudi border guards trained by German police under another corporate-linked defense partnership shot and killed dozens of Ethiopians at the Yemen border. The Iraqis on board the boats in the Channel come from the ruins of so-called humanitarian intervention. From invasions to arms sales to environmental crises, the countries that continually profit from and drive the conditions that displace people complain when the human consequences turn up at their doorstep.
I have written about what “we” do, and “our” responsibilities, as if we are all complicit in this. But most people — including ones who may believe the border system is essentially fair and just — possess some basic level of compassion. Every civilization in history has expressed in ethics or law the human principle that life is sacred and to be protected. The death of Alan Kurdi in 2015 sparked a wave of collective anguish across Europe. British donors gave to the country’s Royal National Lifeboat Institution in greater numbers than ever before after the sea rescue charity was attacked by Conservative politicians for daring to commit to rescuing anyone they found at sea. It takes real effort to suppress humanity. You have to make people feel like they’ve been deceived by claiming that refugees are taking advantage of their good nature or lying about their reasons, as if just anyone gets into a potentially lethal raft on a whim.
You have to convince people that anyone entering is a threat to their job and lifestyle, as if our political class does not deliberately preside over slashed public services and a rigged labor market that thrives on pitting migrant against citizen in a race to the bottom for both. You have to use every media organ and political platform you have to press and proselytize this narrative until it becomes dominant. And you have to use blunt force — spying on, arresting, defaming, and punishing activists and campaigners and rescue workers. You have to do a great deal of damage to a great many people, intellectually, morally, physically. And still ordinary people don’t stop trying to help. This weekend is seeing protests in the UK against letting people drown, and people are organizing everywhere — in camps, around detention centers, and in their communities — in defiance of the view that there is no alternative.
Because when people do see through this architecture of callousness, they begin to discover that it does not apply exclusively to migrants and refugees. They may discover just how many other such fraudulent structures exist to disguise many other preventable cruelties that exist — and who is and is not served by the perpetuation of those lies. And as displacement continues to rise globally, this is why people must continue to drown — not in defense of the abstract idea of borders, but the reproduction of a logic in which all cruelty is justifiable by an appeal to pragmatism.