Manufactured Contempt and the Mediterranean Refugee Crisis

More than 1,770 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean since the start of the year, and the peak season of North African immigration to Europe has just begun. The horrors of April this year – first the drowning of 400 people off the coast of Libya, and then 900 more near the Italian island of Lampedusa – exposed the inhumanity of Fortress Europe. When austerity is mixed with a large scale demonization of The Other, it creates emotional barrier that is almost as strong as the physical one.

When these catastrophes occurred, the EU was spending a third as much money and less than a tenth of the manpower into rescue operations compared to 2014, according to The Economist. The professed reasons for this drastic decrease were not only economic in nature. Some within the UK government had argued that the rescue operations served as a “pull factor.” According to this line of reasoning, when some of the immigrants survived, many others were inspired to take the same hazard-filled illegal journey. So the implicit solution was to simply let them drown, in the hope of turning the pull-factor into a deterrent. It didn’t take too long for the results of this abhorrent logic to come in, and they are: 1) a death toll that is 30 times greater compared to 2014 and 2) no decline in the number of people coming into Europe.

But we can’t blame everything on the decision makers. In many cases, their decisions are reflections of popular sentiments. Many Europeans are facing significant decreases in their living standard and are tired of sharing their streets and apartment buildings with destitute people from all around the world. However, we have no choice but to view large parts of this animosity toward immigration as manufactured contempt, because immigration is being projected as the main cause of problems by many on the European right. This conveniently takes focus away from the criminal activities in the finance sector, or Western involvement in the Middle East. Instead of demanding answers from those above us, they encourage us to blame everything on those below us. It would prove difficult to find an older trick in the book.

In defense of a more restrictive immigration policy, many would argue that Europe is unable to, or simply is not morally obliged to open its doors to every single person who seeks a better life. There is nothing inherently immoral with such a standpoint, and it doesn’t deserve to be dismissed or ostracized for political incorrectness – which often is the case in Europe. But when such rhetoric is devoid of any understanding of (or the will to discuss) the factors behind immigration, and when it’s infected with generalizations and malevolence, it can only be perceived as an attempt to manufacture contempt. When one thinks about how much hate there is towards the weakest of the weakest, and how much indifference there is towards the richest of the richest, it is tempting to believe that someone is laughing on the way to the bank.

Recently we saw an astonishing example of this growing moral decadence. Some British tourists on the Greek island of Kos were reportedly disgusted by Syrian refugees who were staring at their food. It was not a scene from The Hunger Games – it was Europe in 2015. And yes, this is only an anecdote. As were the news I heard just before writing this piece, about a man who threw acid at a beggar in Stockholm. But these anecdotes are starting to pile up, so let’s at least accept the possibility that some very atavistic impulses are being reinforced in our societies, in Europe as well as in the US. Not wanting to help is one thing, but feeling contempt for those in need is in a totally different league.