The press coverage of migrants in Calais and crossing the Mediterranean is nearly all focused on the human stories of men, women and children, their determination, the tragedy of their situation and the security and political response. This is important but what about the root causes?
If you look back into our origins as a species, moving on when we are struggling to survive is in our blood. Before we began to make permanent settlements around 10,000 years ago we were a nomadic species more likely to be confronted in our wanderings by other animals than other humans.
“The whole point of justice consists precisely in providing for others….”
But now our planet is crowded with people like us, so moving on means moving into somebody else’s place. Then, being also possessive and tribal creatures we tend to fight off incursions of migrants by erecting barricades, walls, fences, gated communities. But at the same time we are cooperative creatures so we look for ways of getting on together. We are deeply conflicted. It’s a complex story to tell.
Part of our cooperative side is our concern with justice. Living close together doesn’t work without a moral framework. In his BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day on 3rd August, Bishop James Jones put the Christian perspective on migration. He quoted the 4th century Christian philosopher, Lactantius:
“The whole point of justice consists precisely in providing for others, through humanity, what we provide for our own family through affection.”
There are moving examples of such cooperation amongst migrants in the ‘Jungle’, the growing shanty town in Calais. Whilst grass-roots humanitarian support groups in UK and France collect funds and provisions, the UK in particular admits far fewer migrants then Germany, Sweden, Italy and even France. However, the UK does generously fund the construction of fences.
But my focus here is why these people-likeus are so desperate, in particular those from Africa. This is from a Guardian Editorial in May 2015:
“Perhaps the biggest flaw of all is that none of the EU gatherings have focused on the root causes of this migration. No one expects a quick fix in the Middle East, but it is staggering that EU officials have been silent about the way sub-Saharan African countries – who are bleeding their youth to Europe – have let such a situation develop. The governance of these countries must be looked at.”
So what’s the problem with the governance of these African countries? Fundamentally, they are in a vicious circle driven by poverty. An info-graphic film from the School for Life* says that of the 20 poorest countries in the world (average per capita income < $3/day) all but one are in Sub Saharan and Southern Africa. The film lists three reasons for this: weak and corrupt institutions, a culture of acceptance promoted by religion, and geography (climate, infectious disease, poor connectivity). According to the film made by The Rules, this global inequality in wealth is historically recent and rapidly increasing. They say that 200 years ago rich countries were three times richer than poor countries. By the end of colonialism in 1960s they were five times richer. Today they are eighty times richer! If this is true, of course people will migrate.
Why wouldn’t they? It’s in their blood, and in ours too. The poor are voting with their feet and the survivors turn up on our (relatively) rich doorsteps. If we believe in the brotherhood of man, such gross inequality is clearly unjust.
“Crucially, it means we share responsibility for the trouble in Calais.”
What has changed in the past 50 years to cause such huge and increasing inequality? The film by The Rules claims that in our post-colonial world we continue to leach wealth from poor countries at an ever greater rate. They say that, although a total of $130 billion is given in international aid, $2 trillion is channeled unjustly from poor countries to rich countries – 15 times more than the aid budget. I find this entirely believable because much the same is happening within most rich countries, producing the same result – inequality and the illness and suffering it brings in its wake through persistent social stress. These self-similar patterns at different scales, or fractals, are easily explained through complexity theory. Crucially, it means we share responsibility for the trouble in Calais, and as I write, also on the island of KOS. Europe boasts being democratic: all this happens in our name.
Why did the film by the School for Life omit this crucial cause for poverty altogether? Why do most of the mainstream media ignore it? Is it because readers prefer human interest stories? Yes, but there’s more. Why do the EU gatherings also ignore it? Would it have something to do with corporate lobbying? The Rules is a global network of activists working to build citizen power and foster radical thought. The School for Life, on the other hand, is an educational business aimed at casualties of our high speed pursuit of wealth. The Rules has reason to point fingers at corporations and politicians, whilst The School for Life, most of the media and EU officials have interests that encourage them, let’s say, to smooth our troubled minds and collective conscience, and reassure us that the causes are comfortably beyond our control. But we, the people, end up not with hope, but with confusion, and stuck in our own vicious circle driven by (relative) wealth and ignorance. Thereby our own illness and the migration of desperate people from Africa goes on worsening because (so it seems) the root causes are being hidden from us and by us. So we reinforce the fences and keep taking the pills.
* The School for Life film has been taken down from their website following many complaints. What do you think of their film?
By Dr William House
William House is a retired general practitioner interested in understanding health and illness in non-medical ways, especially the creative arts, and through the social and economic roots of health and illness. He undertakes research in primary care, including aspects of holistic practice. William leads a community development for health organisation in Keynsham.