The situation is fluid and rapidly changing, information is not easily available through official news agencies (which, in and of itself, is remarkable), but it appears that the formidable migratory movement towards Europe, from east and south, is far from abating. The phenomenon is not recent, but in recent times has acquired genuinely biblical proportions. It is as if enormous masses of nameless human beings were moving according to the laws of physics, rather than the unpredictability quintessentially defining human individuals. By sea and by land, their movement resembles that of shoals, or flocks, and is similarly ominous, unstoppable. It is as if nothing would stay in its own place any longer, available as an inert resource, a disposable reserve, an obedient work force. A world order is being radically destabilized.
They have been arriving for months, years, crossing the Mediterranean from south and east on improbably overcrowded boats, striving to reach the northern shores. They often find death at sea and are buried there — on occasion a few corpses (but more frequently only the remains of a shipwreck) reach a Sicilian beach, less than 100 miles across from Tunisia. Or they travel by land, from East to West, mostly aiming to get to Germany. Some European countries have expressed the intention of controlling their borders, effectively suspending the Schengen agreement granting free circulation within the Union. The decision of Austria to erect a metallic barrier at the Austro-Italian border, following the example of others (Bulgaria, Hungary, Croatia), has caused some clamor—but indignation seems to be short-lived these days, and unable to translate into political action.
I am writing in early April 2016, shortly after the implementation of the agreement between the European Union and Turkey. Migrants reaching the shores of the islands of the Dodecanese (it is not clear that the migratory influx is decreasing, as authorities claim) are immediately arrested and confined in detention centers. They have no access to legal assistance or basic information about their situation. Médecins Sans Frontières and UNHCR (the United Nations High Commission for Refugees) refuse to take part in these operations because living conditions in the camps are deemed “inhuman.” The camps in mainland Greece likewise present grave inadequacies: electricity, running water, and sanitation infrastructure are lacking or insufficient, which heightens the risk of infections — not to mention the often scarce supply of food, clothing, covers. The Greek-Macedonian border is closed and the Balkan route is no longer practicable. The Republic of Macedonia has pushed back incoming migrants with vigorous methods, occasionally resorting to torture. The refugee camp of Gevgelija, in Macedonian territory, is empty. At the Greek camp of Idomeni, just South of the border, there have been tensions among different ethnicities, clashes with police, and cases of suicide.
Whether by metallic fences or psychological walls, Europe is pursuing the illusion (pernicious as all illusions are) of impassable frontiers. As if the human swarm could be halted. In the last year we grew accustomed to see images on TV of entire families, adults and children alike, undeterred, dig their way under the fences (or barbed wire) to the other side, crawling in the mud. We have watched young people attaching themselves to the bottom of trucks at Calais, trying to cross the Channel and reach England. We have watched endless rows of people walking silently, eyes to the ground, across indeterminate distances, to very uncertain destinations. We have seen them at sea, hanging on to the floating remains of shattered dinghies.
Who are “they”? They come from impoverished Eastern Europe, from the Near and Middle East; from China, India, South-East Asia; from Northern Africa and the sub-Saharan regions. They come from countries ravaged by secular exploitation by foreign powers, economically impoverished to the point of utter dejection, politically unsettled under corrupt governments, murderous dictatorships, or raving fanaticism. They seek refuge. They come to survive — and possibly, even just marginally, to flourish. However dimly lit, as fragile as an idea, this is what sustains them in their quest.
And who are “we”? Where are we from, and to what end? Our own roots have become opaque to us. And it is far from clear whether or not there is life in them still—whether or not what goes under the name of “Europe” may yet vitally contribute to human becoming. This is a way of asking whether or not Europe has a future — for cultures, just like plants and anything living, are not immortal.
To be continued…