We asked for workers and people came

Last week we have again helplessly watched people drowning in the Mediterranean as they attempt to cross the sea to the safety of Europe. Migration NGOs say that more than 2,000 migrants and refugees have died in 2015 so far. However, the very use of the term ‘migrants’ by European governments and NGOs dehumanises their tragedy, occluding the fact that what the Italian-Jewish writer Primo Levi, speaking of Holocaust victims and survivors, called ‘the drowned and the saved’, are human beings, just like us. In 1972, during the migration of ‘guest workers’ to western Europe, the Swiss writer Max Frisch, whose work focused on issues of responsibility, morality, and political commitment, unforgettably wrote in response to the ‘guest workers’ controversy: ‘we asked for workers and human beings came’. Migrant workers, Frisch insisted, have lives, families, hopes and dreams, just like the citizens of the states they come to live in – an insight too easily lost in the current debates on migrants and refugees.

The people desperately trying to gain entry to Western Europe, be it through the fenced border between Hungary and Serbia, the Channel tunnel between France and Britain, or on rickety boats crossing the Mediterranean from Africa to southern Europe, are fleeing disasters – such as the catastrophic wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Eritrea and Sudan, or the dire poverty of African countries – all created or supported by the west. Lest we forget, these humans are fleeing because they want to feel safe and give their children a future, yet, although seeking asylum is totally legal, they are often criminalised by the European migration regime.

Yes, the Irish navy did take part in rescue missions, saving thousands from drowning; although the Minister for Defence praised the navy, he also insisted that only ‘genuine’ refugees should be saved, opening the way for racist groups such as Identity (Crisis) Ireland to propose that the Irish navy should send these wretched of the earth back to where they came from. According to politicians and their media lackeys, traffickers (or rather smugglers without whom refugees cannot reach safety) should be blamed. According to the UNHCR, ‘traffickers have sent more than 90,000 migrants by sea to Italy so far this year’, and in 2014 Italy has taken in 170,000 migrants; yet people in southern Italy have shown incredible hospitality, saying they had been migrants for over a century themselves and know what these people are going through.

On arrival in Ireland asylum seekers – unlike labour migrants vitally needed to fill vacancies in the IT, health and hospitality sectors – are often criminalized, as has been the case with a young Afghan man who was criminalized and imprisoned upon being found without documentation. As Anne Mulhall of Anti-Racism Network Ireland writes, this ‘speaks volumes about the criminalization of migration and of people who migrate and seek asylum… why would this man not be treated as a criminal when politicians, bureaucrats, the media, governments, the mechanisms of the EU, multiplying and accelerating securitization agendas, the law itself all frame migration and asylum seekers as criminal?’

Nor is this criminalization new; the detention of asylum seekers is common throughout the west, in the EU, the US and Australia. People who seek asylum are racialized and criminalized and are often given criminal convictions. Meanwhile, most citizens either ignore their fate or compound their criminalization by suggesting, as did Ted Neville of Identity Ireland, that the Irish navy return to Africa all of the refugees it rescued in the Mediterranean: ‘Just send ‘em all back, without any consideration of their fate’.