In May a Malian asylum seeker climbed the outside of a Parisian apartment block to rescue a child from certain death, and was immediately granted asylum. We shouldn’t be surprised at his bravery or his humanity, given that he risked the slave markets of Libya and the dangerous Mediterranean to reach France, something few manage without courage, resilience and helping one another on the way. Indeed, if you wanted to set a series of trials to determine who might make a good citizen you couldn’t do much better. What should surprise us is that some kinds of bravery attract near-universal applause, but others attract condemnation.
The docking in Valencia of the rescue vessel Aquarius with its 629 migrants after 8 days stranded at sea highlighted the dilemma; one brave African is an asset, six hundred are a liability. Italy rejected them – it has taken 640,000 over the last few years, and over half its voters say it’s someone else’s turn. But as the Aquarius twittered its evolving humanitarian crisis its account bulged with hostile responses, many from the UK. Commenting on an orphaned 11-year-old on board who wants to become a doctor “Marion,” said, “they all want to become a docter (sic) but most of them never have the power&brains, culture (sic) to become one.” “UKIPster” suggested the child was likely to behave like a recent adult Afghan refugee who murdered a young German woman. “Alfonso VI” claimed “there’s a reason why migrants like him don’t apply for asylum the usual way.” “Vincent Roberts” said, “Back to Libya!” The boldness with which people put names to these repugnant sentiments is as grim as the sentiments themselves.
It is an unquestionable human duty not to leave people to drown if we can save them. The right to claim asylum is universal, but requires first setting foot in the country whose protection you claim. The right not to be tortured or delivered back to torture is one that even “Vincent Robert” relies upon, but in Libyan immigration centres the UN has documented torture and violent sexual abuse. Migrants therefore cannot be turned back. The only hope of breaking the cycle is to process asylum claims properly, and return those not qualifying to their (safe) homes. Yet Europe has failed to make a comprehensive plan. Most parliamentarians didn’t turn up for last week’s immigration debate, or walked out during it. The Council of Europe offers the less-than-blindingly reassuring statement: “ministers held informal discussions on the application of the principles of responsibility and solidarity in the context of the common European asylum system. The results of these discussions, together with the latest compromise text, will form the basis for further work.” It’s to be hoped they show a bit more conviction when they meet to find solutions next week. The crunch is upon us, and it will take more than a child on a balcony to solve it. Until we do the cycle will continue to repeat and the repugnant right will grow ever-bolder.