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. Continue reading “We asked for workers and people came”