Thursday, March 28, 2019

May We Request a Detour?

The world is a big place. And so on any given day, a lot of things are going on. Enough things that most of us don't have the attention budget to follow up on most, or even a significant fraction of them. One item that it occurred to me had been in the news, but that I hadn't seen anything about recently, was the attempted migration of people from Africa to Europe. So I went online, and started looking for news.

And came across this story of a group of just over one hundred migrants that had been picked up off the cost of Libya by a tanker vessel. When the tanker prepared to return the migrants to Libya, the migrants seized control of the vessel, and redirected it to Malta. En route, the Maltese military intercepted and boarded the ship. Four of the migrants were arrested, and the remainder are now on Malta.

While the number of people attempting to make the Mediterranean crossing from North Africa to Europe has slowed from its peak a few years back, there are still large numbers of people who are desperate to leave war, poverty and violence-racked nations to basically eke out a marginal, subsistence living in wealthier nations. (I've always felt that it really says something about the conditions that people are leaving that an existence that's effectively a step above homelessness, and requires a full-time job {if not more} to sustain is a significant step up. Especially given the fact that many of the people who are fleeing are not poor; the truly destitute often can't afford to make the journey.)

Of course, the migration to the North is not limited to the Mediterranean basin. A large number of people make the trek to the United States every year, for various and sundry reasons. And while active barriers to migration, in the form of walls, laws or other disincentives to moving, are going to have some level of support in the destination countries, the fact of the matter remains that you can't keep significant numbers of people on the outside looking in forever. Sooner or later the draw of the greater resources and better lives that people perceive exist in the "better" parts of the world will simply become too strong to ignore. And when people feel that they have a right to a better life, or simply that they have nothing left to lose, they'll go to extremes. It's possible that the four migrants arrested in Malta won't be deported as criminals, or wind up with long prison terms for piracy. But that's a heck of a risk to take, and it speaks to the perceived stakes.

At some point, things are going to have to even out. Places like sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America are going to have to become better places to live. There's simply no other way of putting an end to the constant tragedies that come with the mass migration of people. Destination countries tend to have, presumably unintentionally, a strange push-and-pull scheme in place: a lot of work goes into efforts to push the migrants back to the nations from which they came, yet little attention is paid to the incentives that pull them in. I've started likening it to having a mouse problem. Sure, one can put the time, money and effort into attempting to completely seal the home against mice; or it might be easier to remove the easily-scavenged food that attracts them in the first place.

But this metaphor, which I usually trot out in the service of explaining why I think that a border wall between the United States and Mexico is not the best use of resources, glosses over what may be the best solution. Borrowing a line from justifications of the War on Terror, if wealthy nations help improve the lives of people "over there," they don't have to deal with them attempting to illegally cross borders "over here." To be sure, it's a hard sell, and there are some pretty obvious perverse incentives to such a scheme. So while it may be the best solution, that doesn't mean that it would be an easy one by any stretch of the imagination.

But in the end, it something of a moot point. There is only so much attention to go around, and while this particular story may make a few headlines there and there, the situation will fade from attention again (after all, it is a limited resource) and return to being a forgotten problem, along with a million others. Forgetting about these sorts of things rarely comes back to bite the societies that walk away from them (at least not in the short to medium term), and so for them, the stakes are fairly low. This difference in the perceived stakes is part of what drives the entire conflict. Until the stakes become higher for the destination countries, there will be other priorities that preclude finding lasting solutions. And this is only to be expected. But it's still a tragedy.

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