Islands in the sun

Last Saturday night, authorities in the border province of Evros rescued about 30 Iraqi refugees from a mudbank in the middle of the Evros River, which runs between Greece and Turkey. The Greeks set out in small boats and picked up the refugees (mostly women and children) after they were told of their plight by another 20 who managed to get to the Greek side by using tree branches and ropes, the Athens News Agency reported. The refugees told the Greeks that they had been abandoned on the mudbank by a Turkish smuggler. «It is worth noting that this is not the first time that Turkish smugglers abandon illegal immigrants on sandbanks in the Evros River, resulting in some of them drowning in their effort to cross the river,» the agency said, its dry tone barely hinting at the drama of each of those tragic attempts. Some other reports claimed that this latest batch of immigrants – one group among so many trying to flow across our country’s liquid barriers – were stuck for days in limbo, resulting from the fact that the mudbank on which they had been dumped did not belong to either Greece or Turkey. So officials on both sides closed their eyes to the plight of the men, women and children living in fear of the river’s next arbitrary shifting of sands sweeping them away, and they waited for someone else to take responsibility for the refugees. If these reports are true, and such instances have been reported in the past as well, then the Greeks blinked first. The 50 Iraqis (who are probably Kurds) are now in a reception center and, being the focus of at least some little publicity, might have the good fortune of being processed correctly rather than pushed back across the border for the sake of convenience. The irony is that in the past, Greek and Turkish troops were known to keep an eye on the shifting islets of the Evros sands so as to pounce on them with flags and claim them as sovereign territory. It was precisely this kind of flag-waving that nearly led to war between Greece and Turkey when Turkey suddenly started playing the game in the eastern Aegean, on what Ankara says are disputed islets and Athens says are its sovereign territory. Suddenly, the presence of foreign immigrants makes such a land grab a little less tempting. There is a trend in this. Just earlier this month, Australia, which made so much of a shipload of 433 Afghans trying to get to it last August (and who amount to about a good week’s worth of refugees for Greece), excluded hundreds of tiny islands off its northern coast from its «migration zone» so that the so-called boat people who strike land there cannot apply for visas to stay in Australia. This follows Canberra’s wily move last year to get Nauru, a sovereign Pacific island state, to take in 219 of the 433 Afghans, paying its tiny neighbor to keep the refugees until May 30. Nauru’s president, Rene Harris, said last weekend that his nation’s decision to accept the unwanted asylum seekers had turned into a «nightmare,» with the migrants still there after the deadline had passed. Not only has Australia shipped its unwanted immigrants off to another country, it is now declaring that hundreds of its own islands are no longer fully Australian territory. This is an exciting new concept, sovereignty a la carte. Just as the American president can decide at will which international treaties and obligations his country will honor, so each country can play around with concepts that have been the basis of international relations for centuries, such as inventing territorial rights without responsibilities. It is interesting to see that unwanted people can make countries wish to forgo territorial rights, as if territory with migrants on it were akin to a temporary, orphaned islet made of a river’s shifting mud. But the river that is bigger than the Evros, or the Aegean, or the Nauru, is that massive current of people shifting across the globe in search of stable ground to build their homes and raise their families. And this is where nations, and even groups of nations like the European Union, are trying to fortify themselves, to stand out like islands in a sea of misery which, they fear (justifiably or not), will swamp them. This is a glimpse of the future and the past. «No man is an island,» John Donne wrote. «And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.» He was referring, of course, to death, the common fate of all living things. But he might have been speaking also of man’s fickle fate, which has forced all nations to migrate or flee at some time in their history. Which country in Europe is not the product of past migrations, whether gradual ones over long periods or those caused by flight or invasion? No one can be certain that he or she or their children will not be forced to seek a better life elsewhere, sometime. Europe has come out of centuries of bloodshed with a wonderful 50 years of mostly peace and development, just enough to provide the false sense that things can always be so good. Now that the social model based on economic expansion and rich benefits to workers and pensioners is beginning to totter, the unfamiliar sense of uncertainty has made people feel insecure to a disproportionate extent. And, as always, it is the foreigner in our midst who is the first to be demonized. The spectacular collapse of the center-left in France and the general swing toward the right in many European countries, coupled with the sense that, like colonialists of old, the natives cannot fathom the depths of the darker communities among them, has placed the issue of immigration at the top of the agenda. Controlling, limiting, stopping or even rolling back immigration to some degree is increasingly presented as the way back to a better time that may or may not have existed. European leaders, at their summit in Seville yesterday, discussed (and eventually decided against) a proposal to warn other countries of economic sanctions if they did not crack down on the stream of illegal immigrants flowing through them toward the EU. British Prime Minister Tony Blair was among the keenest proponents of this, naturally, as his country is the destination of so many of the immigrants heading west. It is something of a natural progression: Immigrants sneak into Greece, via the islands or the Evros River; once on EU territory it is easier for them to keep moving across borders; Britain, which was once an island but is now connected to the Continent by a tunnel, becomes the final destination. Aside from the fact that there is no other border to cross, immigrants seem to expect welfare benefits once they get to Britain, or some other «northern countries.» The «southern» ones, like Greece, very cunningly offer few or no incentives for immigrants. So only those who find a place in society – a job and shelter – stay. The rest of the river just keeps on moving. The thought of punishing third countries that do not stop migrants, very simply, is an effort to widen the straits between the rich countries and the poor. This sounds logical, but it seems to neglect the fact that there are already millions of immigrants living in Europe, providing new blood for the economy and aging populations, contributing toward pension funds and thereby helping to pay for the benefits of native populations. These people are necessary, but not all of them are assimilated and not all their children are happy or employed. These groups, like those growing up in the pools of poverty, hopelessness and anger on the developed world’s periphery, are the greatest threats to security. And the greatest threat to Europeans’ well-being is the political pandering which prohibits a rejuvenation of the economy and society. As Europe (coyly avoiding the term «fortress») becomes like an island, nervously surveying the hungry hordes from the battlements, it seems to be locking its gates with most of its problems inside.