They are frequently in the news these days. Today they are called migrants. In the past they had other names. Thousands of desperate people, crammed into rickety boats, attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Some make it; many more perish in the sea. The lucky ones are rescued by the Italian Coastguard. The plight of migrants, asylum seekers, boat people – whatever the name is causing a lot of concern. There are several reasons for this.
First, immigration is a big issue in Europe and America, especially among conservatives and racists. For these there is only one solution: keep the hordes away from our shores.
Not surprisingly, right wing politicians across Europe have successfully used immigrants as political scarecrows. That partly explains the success of parties like the National Front in France and the UK Independent Party (UKIP) in the United Kingdom.
As a matter of fact, there is a mighty quarrel going on between British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel regarding immigration in Europe.
Secondly, even among the working classes, immigrants are unwelcome because of competition for few jobs. The recent economic slump from which many countries have not fully recovered means that unemployment remains high.
Then the professional humanitarians writhe in untold pain. Their soft hearts cannot bear to see the risks the migrants take and the number of lives lost.
The media, of course, swoops on these stories. Human misfortune is the main fare of today’s media. Still, we must be grateful that they inform us of such things.
However, today’s migrants are not a new phenomenon. There have been similar cases in history that went by other names.
Some might recall the Vietnam boat people of the 1970s and 80s. Following the end of the Vietnam War, many Vietnamese risked their lives trying to cross the Pacific Ocean to the United States.
The boats were usually not sea-worthy just as today’s are. They were crammed with passengers beyond their capacity just like now. The boat people as they came to be known were equally unwelcome.
Some of the Vietnam boat people had been collaborators of the United States in the war. They were abandoned by their former masters and naturally feared reprisals from the victors. For them, political and economic security could be guaranteed by emigration to the United States.
Others simply wanted a better life. Their country had been destroyed and rebuilding was obviously going to take a long time.
There are others among us who can remember the boat people from Haiti, also trying to get into the United States in the 1970s through to the 90s. Most of them were running away from the horrors and biting poverty of the rule of the Duvaliers: Papa Doc and Baby Doc.
They were fleeing from the violence of the right wing gangs, the Tontons Macoute, that were officially sanctioned to terrorise the people. Boat people are therefore not a new happening. They have been there as long as there have been poor people who think they can make it better in Europe or America.
Equally, there will always be people who are genuinely escaping from tyranny, intolerance or other sorts of pestilence. Today’s most preferred destination for immigrants, the United States of America, was made by people running away from all these, plus, of course, others taken there in chains.
Others will be lured by the appearance of a good life that is transmitted via Hollywood and television and other forms of popular culture.
Above all, there are those seeking escape from the chaos created by the West in their countries. It is not a coincidence that most of today’s boat people are from North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
In this sense, the West bears some blame for the boat people and the desperate measures they are prepared to take to get away.
Take the example of Iraq and Afghanistan. There are many who feel abandoned like the Vietnamese three decades earlier. In both countries, as well as in Syria and Libya, there has been massive social and economic dislocation. Lives have been enormously disrupted. The state has all but collapsed, leading to instability and insecurity.
In such circumstances people will run to where they think they can be secure and repair their lives. The West, whose power and wealth they have seen, whose promise of opportunity they have always been told about, becomes an obvious choice of relocation.
It wouldn’t be the first time either. Many Europeans, including Germans, and many from Central and Eastern Europe, flocked to America after World War Two. The same trend westwards was in evidence after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia.
Boat or desert people (there are many who brave the harsh North African and Middle Eastern deserts but go unreported), migrants or by whatever name, are obviously a humanitarian crisis.
But they are also the product of a deliberate social, political and economic re-engineering process. It is only fair that those who dismantle but fail to reassemble societies must bear some responsibility and shoulder some of the consequences.