21st century death ships

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21st century death ships

When we think about the sad situation of asylum-seekers today, we can learn from the story of the Irish refugees two hundred years ago, writes Jeremy Seabrook.


The Irish National Famine Monument shows a Death Ship. Sculpture by John Behan. Tanya Hart under aCreative Commons Licence

The Mediterranean is now one of the saddest places in the world. There we see global inequality in action. Tourists from the cold, cloudy north of Europe look for sun, sand, and vitamin D. And the dead run away from war, poverty, and persecution in their own countries. For some the Mediterranean is a playground and for others it is a place to die.

In Britain, we have been here before - during the potato famine in Ireland in the 1840s. In 1846 and 1847, there was famine in Ireland, and thousands of refugees from hunger took old boats to Quebec. Sometimes the landlords paid for them after they took away their small farms. Many people died on the way to Quebec and the boats were called “death ships”. In some of these ships, a third of the ‘passengers’ died. They did not have enough food and there was disease. Three quarters of a million people took boats across the Irish Sea, Many died when they arrived in Liverpool. But in 1846, 300,000 hungry people arrived in Liverpool. In the first half of 1847 another 300,000 arrived. When they saw so many thin and miserable refugees on the ‘mainland’, the Tory government introduced the Poor Law Removal Act because these people were all British citizens.

Do politicians really care?

Perhaps we have a dark memory of all this. British Prime Minister David Cameron really wanted to send the Royal Navy flagship, HMS Bulwark, to stop and possibly destroy the boats of ‘people-traffickers’ and to help save migrants to Europe. But he did not want the migrants to come to Britain. This kind of ‘humanitarianism’ is not very deep in Europe. It is only for the cameras after hundreds of years of racism, imperialism, and bad treatment of people all over the world.

The government only seems to worry about the migrants. They take no real action. And British newspapers show that they do not care. A reporter in The Sun owned by Rupert Murdoch called the migrants ‘cockroaches’ or insects. Nazi minister Joseph Goebbels used the same word. So which of these opinions is the ‘real’ Europe? Is it the weak kindness of its leaders, or the words of its far-right politicians, helped by newspapers which hate foreign people?

In Europe the deaths of so many migrants is not new anymore. Another boat sailed from Libya on 19 April, 96 kilometres from the Libyan coast, and 700 people died. Europe must now remember that it stopped many of its sea-rescue operations last year to stop migrants trying to leave Africa. David Cameron and others believed that more migrants would try to come to Europe if they knew they would be saved from the sea. Over the past 20 years at least 25,000 people have died on the borders of the European Union. In Brussels the leaders of Europe stood in silence for one minute to remember the dead and celebrate the 28 survivors. But the leaders have never valued the lives of these people as much as their own people.

European governments all agreed to use the cheaper Triton coastal patrol boats but they complained about ‘traffickers’, ‘people smugglers’, with poor boats for which many paid $2,000-$3,000 for a dangerous trip to Europe. But human trafficking, in one form or another, has been part of capitalism since the slave trade and part of gaining wealth. Now today’s victims of war, poverty, misery, and dictatorship, want this wealth for themselves.

Global exchange of peoples

The West has created instability, violence, and poverty, which people want to escape from. And the latest form of Western imperialism is globalization. It was not started by the small farmers of Africa, the poor in Dhaka or Lagos, the small street traders in Sao Paulo, or the native people of Guatemala. The West has disturbed many countries through foreign trade, sending missionaries, colonial empires, economic ‘integration’, and by globalisation. Natural disasters, drought, crop failure, earthquakes, and local wars have created a very big exchange of peoples around the world. In 2013 there were 232 million migrants in the world. The idea of lazy happiness and wealth is shown by the West to every part of the world,

It is easy to say we did not play a part in all of this. The leaders of Europe talk about the security of their borders, and tell their people not to worry. Only those who bring wealth into the country are welcome. But there are no borders when their own rich want sea, sex, and the sun. But be careful – you may see the bodies of people who died on the golden beaches of southern Europe.

This was not the idea. The idea was for every country to have a better life. Civil war, Ebola, religious differences, very fast change, moving people from their usual ways of life all mean that a number of people do not believe the Western way of life is possible in their own country. So they want to go to Europe. We must change the idea that the poor will only be less poor if the rich are much richer. Then the idea that social hope, security and safety is not possible in peoples’ own countries will perhaps stop. The big difference between rich and poor

The Mediterranean is where we see very clearly the growing differences between the rich and the poor in the world. In 2013, 51 million people were moved by force. 16.7 million of these were refugees, 86 per cent of them housed in developing countries. For the first time, more than half of them were under the age of 18.

In a world where the rich can visit any part of the world, it is not possible to imprison the rest in their own country. It is time for the West to share its wealth so that people will be happy to stay in the countries where luck or even God put them.

NOW READ THE ORIGINAL: http://newint.org/features/web-exclusive/2015/05/12/asylum-seekers-now-and-then/

(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed).