In September, 500 migrants drowned in the Mediterranean Sea near Malta. Two survivors explained how they had left Egypt with Syrians, Palestinian and Sudanese refugees on board a rickety boat that was overloaded. Some were families, some children alone. They were bound for the Sicilian island of Lampedusa. All had paid the boatman in advance. Midway in the journey, over a dispute regarding transferring to a small boat, there was an intentional ramming of the boat and all but two of the immigrants drowned. It was not an accident and it was not an isolated case. It was cold-blooded murder. Every day, determined Africans flee the misery and dangers of their countries in un-seaworthy boats. Those who manage to make it across join thousands of people already crowding makeshift camps. They are so desperate that they pay fortunes for the dangerous journey. Because of the wars in Syria and Iraq, the situation has reached catastrophic proportions and the European Union finds itself unable to deal with it. It has created border patrols and detention centers thus earning the name “Fortress Europe.” In most countries, the right wing parties have been vociferous in denouncing these “parasites” attracted by Europe’s generous welfare system.
In Israel, the equivalent detention center for African migrants is called Holot. It houses thousands of Sudanese and Eritrean refugees who make a treacherous journey across the Sinai desert in search of a better life. Some make it all the way to Tel Aviv where they cannot find work and turn to crime. They are definitely not welcome. They are even offered money to return home. The problem is that Israel identifies itself as a Jewish State and an influx of 50,000 Africans threatens the country’s Jewish character.
Since 1990 the number of Central American immigrants to the US has tripled. Tens of thousands of children from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras are showing up illegally at the Texas border. Often without parents, they too are being taken advantage of by smugglers or coyotes who collect their money and abandon them. Many die alone in the desert, unidentified and un-buried. They too are leaving countries where they face misery and danger. They too want a better life. President Obama and the Congress are fighting over who is responsible for the situation and how to provide a path for citizenship for so many undocumented immigrants.
There is increasing chaos and instability in the world and a bigger than ever gap between poor and wealthy countries. While many countries squabble over the difference between migrants and refugees, this semantic battle is not helping those who are running away for whatever reason. What are the duties and obligations of the wealthy countries toward the poor ones?
When does egotism give way to generosity? And how much of a strain can they absorb without being overwhelmed? It is a difficult balancing act.