All posts

The tragedy of Lampedusa

n1103680475_30040235_1923The fate of Africa and of the refugees coming from there is still as embarrassing to supposedly “Christian“ and “humanistic“ Europe as ever. Last week, another “refugee disaster happened“ off the coast of the Italian Mediterranean island of Lampedusa. As usual when African refugees drown or get stranded in the Mediterranean on their way to Europe, the event was called a “disaster” and “crisis,” as if it was an inevitable disaster caused by forces of nature that fatefully reached Lampedusa (and Europe).

In reality, the problem is a social and humanitarian one, which cannot be solved simply by sandbags or state force, such as (in this case the EU border) police („Frontex“). But instead of searching for real solutions, the EU has exacerbated its policy of a harsh approach towards these refugees and has militarized Frontex, whose task it is to control, protect and monitor the EU’s external borders. The root causes of these waves of refugees – the abject poverty and the large socio-economic gap between the richer regions of the North and the West and the poorer ones of the South and the East – are usually not talked about in the mainstream media coverage or are just covered by niche channels, that are not conducive to the bulk of the public (such as a report on “Fortress Europe“ by German-French channel arte on Tuesday, October 8th, 22.10, that can be re-viewed here:, in German or French).

On the main public squares of some European cities and in the editorial offices of the tabloid media outlets, the retreat into nationalistic patterns is demanded and encouraged, according to which local populations should again be the first and foremost point of reference for politics, with “foreigners” less welcomed and attended to. The fears and old xenophobic instincts are instigated, of “the stranger“, who is presented as bad and dangerous to the interest of the local people, by populists, from Oslo to Berlin to Vienna and elsewhere. National shells appear comfortable and offer protection from “the foreign people, a-fighting, down in Turkey, far away“, as German poet J. W. Goethe wrote in his drama “Faust“ (1808) in the scene “Before the city-gate“:

“On Sundays, holidays, there’s naught I take delight in,

Like gossiping of war, and war’s array,

When down in Turkey, far away,

The foreign people are a-fighting.

One at the window sits, with glass and friends,

And sees all sorts of ships go down the river gliding:

And blesses then, as home he wends

At night, our times of peace abiding.“

This is said by “another citizen“ in a conversation among citizens.

This was more than two-hundred years ago. Now, in the twenty-first century, things are slightly different. Today, due to the cultural and above all economic globalization there is no (or almost no) point of the world left that could be compared to Goethe’s “far away in Turkey“ then.  The regions of the world are, for better or for worse, intrinsically linked to each other, economically and as far as the modes of communications and transport are concerned. In the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the powers of Europe expanded and thus created the first global economic network, a kind of “world system“, as Immanuel Wallerstein characterized it. In this age, later called “imperialism“, the “centres“ of the world system, i.e. the colonial powers (first Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, then Britain and France, to be followed by Belgium, Italy and the German Empire) profited from the “periphery“, i.e. the colonies (initially in America, then in Asia and, well into the twentieth century, in Africa), or in other words exploited them.

In the twentieth century, by means of economic “globalization“, hailed as a mantra by neoliberal economists and politicians, this system of direct exploitation was replaced by one of indirect exploitation. Although the colonies were given their independence and political self-determination, they were still dominated by the West’s ratio of economic exploitation. European and North American workers were deemed “too expensive“ in the “rationalization“ calculations of the multi-national corporations and others, their jobs outsourced, with a “race to the bottom“ taking place with regard to the costs of labour. Many goods consumed in the West were and are produced in the former colonies under conditions of exploitation. Social standards that apply in the Western working place are not only ignored there; far worse, conditions are inhumane, and in fact, human lives are often deemed worthless by the powers that be when the pursuit of their prestige of profit is concerned. The most recent, sad examples of this are the deaths of dozens of construction workers of the stadia that are being built for the 2022 FIFA football World Cup in Qatar, or the hundreds of factory workers who suffered a cruel death in the collapse of a textiles factory in Bangladesh. Meanwhile, the (comparatively) rich (petty) bourgeois in the West apparently stands at the window and secretly takes delight in this or at least doesn’t care much about the fate of the people there, “in Turkey, far away“, and keeps celebrating hedonistically “on Sundays, holidays“ at fun fairs (“Oktoberfest“) or elsewhere.

The apathy and indifference of many people in the West is almost as bad as the hatred and the small-mindedness of the racists and xenophobes, who not only hate the foreigners, but see them as a threat to their standard of living, that is based on the exploitation of exactly the same people in the (formerly so-called) “Third World“. This attitude of “strangers as a threat“ is widely held by many in the North, not only towards the non-European asylum seekers or economic migrants, but increasingly also towards the supposedly “lazy Southerners“ in Europe, who allegedly effortlessly receive money from the Northerners “as a gift“. This is perhaps the biggest myth, not to say most blatant lie, that the “Springer“ (i.e. “yellow“) press and other media outlets have hammered into many Germans’ perceptions (and that has probably brought a lot of extra votes to Chancellor Merkel): that the German taxpayer has “saved Greece“. In reality, the banks and financial speculators have made a killing in these “rescue“ operations, whereas the populations of those “crisis“ countries, from Athens to Dublin, have suffered severe cuts; thus, it has been a redistribution of money from the lower and middle classes to the very top. “People around here [Germany and the other rich Northern countries] squat on their comparatively gigantic wealth and are frightening themselves almost to death – as if the future has not always been uncertain“, Austrian writer Eva Menasse aptly described those in the populace, who fell for the scare tactics of the populists or right-wing extremists (such as the „Progress Party“ (Norway), Orbán and “Jobbik“ (Hungary), Strache, Stronach (Austria), Wilders (Netherlands), the anti-EU “Alternative für Deutschland“ and parts of the Conservative party (CDU/CSU) in Germany) and their henchmen in the press (Germany’s “BILD“ paper and Austria’s “Kronen-Zeitung“, and many national TV stations). This fear has been brought into the main stream of the European societies and the tendency towards more cosmopolitanism, which seemingly began to grow with the process of Europeanization, has been killed off by austerity and right-wing populism.

Now, after a period where the European and humanistic spirit was summoned, national resentments are again brought to the fore, where the “home“ and the “nation“ is good, and the “foreign“, the possibly “Jewish“ and “cosmopolitan“, is bad. The pretty conclusive interpretation that austerity, “saving the banks“ etc. is a “class war“ of the super-rich against the rest of the world, as the super-rich Warren Buffett has dubbed it himself (““There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning“, NY Times, 26. November 2006), is intentionally discarded or, if at all, those who are the real causers of the crisis and those who are the driving forces behind and the beneficiaries of the exploitation, are thrown into the same pot as “the foreigners“, the “asylum cheats“ (Austrian populist Strache). From the viewpoint of the chauvinists they are all the same in that they “want our money“ (as the BILD’s headline “Niggers want our money“ as a simplistic slogan (against the demand for an increase in foreign aid) illustrates) or just want to take advantage of the welfare system, at the expensive of them. Nations and races are pitted against each other (the local worker against the “foreign“ one, the “hard-working“ Northerner against the “lazy“ Southerner). The actual fraud happening in the financial and economic sphere of the top 1% remains a non-issue; for it is this top 1% that is in part financing the lying and stultifying media (with Rupert Murdoch’s media empire being the prime example). The result of such stultification, manufactured by media and populists, are incredibly cynical comments such as those found in the online forum of the central organ of the Austrian populist party FP (Freedom Party), the “Krone“ newspaper (“Kronen-Zeitung“). They were apparently made by the disciples of those populist Pied Pipers, who follow their racist, national-egotistical and social Darwinist slogans such as “asylum cheats“ etc. Some comments, as examples:

“I think the two fishing boats should be sued by Italian taxpayers or pay themselves for the cost of the rescue of the 160 rescued, thanks! “

“Eventually, the EU will only protect the Africans from these dangers if they free all coasts of North Africa from fishing boats and other boats in large-scale commando action, sink them all” [sic!]

“The thing would be quite easy, put a mine field in place, 50 miles off Lampedusa, and it’ll be quiet.In the truest sense of the word. And do not forget comment [?] to check if everything is alright [?] “

“And if I am completely honest .I personally do not care how many drown there, [it’s their] own fault

“[sinking] should be done to all the boats, but further off the coast” [sic!]

These chauvinists wants “peace and quiet“ and his “freedom“ (primarily: to consume). It doesn’t matter to them that their “freedom” is based on the exploitation of fellow human beings or nature. They do not want to be bothered with such problems as the consequences of economic globalization and climate change. The right-wing extremist parties do (and historically did) them the favour of acknowledging them or encouraging them in their simplistic worldview. This shows a growing lack of solidarity (e.g. homeless people are criminalized in Hungary) and an increasing de-humanization, caused by the exploitation of the “emerging markets“ (when will they fully “emerge“?) and “least developed“ countries on the one hand, and the division of Europe due to the “debt crisis“ and austerity on the other. The latter has led to mutual recriminations and the rehashing of old national stereotypes (“Nazi Germans“, “lazy Greeks“). A glimpse of hope remains (as so often), that there are societal forces present, in some parliaments and of course in the enlightened and humanistic parts of the population, that correctively and collectively oppose such liars, populists and simplifiers. To take care of the root causes of the problems, i.e. to effectively replace the global economic system of exploitation by one of greater solidarity, a more ecological and sustainable one, remains a major challenge and a task that will take up a whole generation.

By Robert Scheele

Robert Scheele is a doctoral student at the University of Vienna. He studied history, political science and rhetoric at the University of Tübingen, Germany and at the University of Dublin, Trinity College, Ireland. He also comments on social and political issues in his blog,