In defence of people smugglers

A group of German women and children arriving in the British sector of Berlin, October 1945 (left); Syrian refugees brave the cold and snow as they walk to a metro station in Istanbul, February 2015 (right) (photos: The King's Academy, Daily Amin)

The abuses and exploitation that refugees face at the hands of human traffickers fail to explain or justify the level of opprobrium in the Western media.

When I was a child I loved reading novels about escape. They were mostly stories of people escaping from areas under Nazi control, being smuggled across borders into neutral countries, or trying to get hold of the right papers, or at least ones convincing enough to allow them to escape from imprisonment, torture and death. Along the way they would meet some people who would help them and some who would betray them — the suspense and drama came from sharing the character’s uncertainty as to whether or not they’d make it, and whether or not the person they’d just met could really be trusted. The escapees, exhibiting bewildering levels of courage and ingenuity, were occasionally assisted by networks of resistance, anonymous people of staggering bravery who were prepared to face torture and give their lives to save others and to combat injustice.

This kind of fiction was everywhere when I was a kid, which was still within the broad cultural aftermath of the excitement and traumas of the war. You could still buy Victor annuals which revelled in imagery of armed conflict — I’m pretty sure the very first phrase I learnt in German was ‘Achtung! Ich bin hit!’. By the time I came into being there had already been a good couple of decades of this stuff. As an adult I read A Night in Lisbon by Erich Maria Remarque, a more complex account of the brutalities of the struggle for escape and survival, and also Austerlitz by WG Sebald, which explores the deeper implications of what it is to be rescued and to start a new life elsewhere. They depicted deep, intense psychological and moral battles, in a way conditioned by a profound sense of empathy at suffering and loss. There was always a great deal of romance in these stories: divided couples and also people with divided emotions and divided loyalties who were forced by the threat of violence or by their conscience to do the wrong or the right thing. Intense human drama, in other words.

Brave and principled people who, despite not being perfect human beings, clearly did the right thing

The people who helped potential victims of Nazi persecution to escape were heroes and still are. Oskar Schindler himself is only one of them. In Portugal a few years ago there was a spate of articles about Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese Consul-General in Bordeaux in France who defied the orders of Portugal’s Salazar dictatorship to issue visas and passports to a number of refugees. There is also the similar story of Gilberto Bosques Saldívar, Mexican Consul in Marseilles, who directed his employees to issue a visa to anybody wanting to flee to Mexico. Two weeks ago in the UK press there were a number of obituaries of Nicholas Winton, who organized the rescue of 669 children, most of them Jewish, from Czechoslovakia.

These were all extremely brave and principled people who, despite not being perfect human beings, clearly did the right thing, and they were not few in number—it is remarkable that in a few minutes’ googling I was actually quite hard-pressed to find any nation that doesn’t have a claim to their very own saviour-of-the-Jews (one might even argue, given the ending of the film, that Schindler in Spielberg’s film is the Israeli Schindler, a stand-in for the state of Israel itself as the only possible refuge for the Jewish people).

Another example is closer to home. When my mother was trying to open a kindergarten in the UK about 20 years ago, she was temporarily stymied in her efforts by a group of local residents who didn’t want to hear the sound of screaming kids on their street day in day out. My father looked at their petition and recognised a name from many years ago. He went to the house and introduced himself to the son of a man whose family my father’s father had, by means of his travel agency, helped to escape from Nazi Germany sixty years or so before. They soon dropped their opposition to the nursery.

What about the wars of today? Where are the 21st century Schindlers?

All of the Schindlers above are dead and buried. The war they fought seemingly has a happy ending: tyranny was defeated, and a handful of good people tried to do the best they could to help the helpless. It’s a comforting tale which allows us to get on with our lives without dwelling too much on our own standing in relation to the events we’ve seen. Schindler’s List flatters ordinary people by putting us partly in the position of helpless victims, partly in the role of the heroic saviour, helpfully allowing us to forget what we know full well: that ordinary people like us were actually the protagonists of the Nazi genocide. But that was seventy years ago. What about the wars of today? Where are the 21st century Schindlers?

It is worth playing devil’s advocate in relation to the massive refugee crisis engulfing the world, a world in which 1 in every 122 people is now exiled from their home by war, the changing climate, or extreme poverty.

There are two recent must-read articles which can help us begin to do this. One of them has a happy ending: it tells the story of Hashem Alsouki, who managed, over the course of three hellish years, to make his way from Syria to safety in Sweden, suffering enormous tribulations along the way, managing to keep at all times his identity papers and a Human Rights Watch report about the destruction of his hometown hanging from his neck in a waterproof pouch. In the other story we don’t meet the main protagonist, who met a less happy fate.

In both cases many people helped them along the way. Some of them were activists serving as a point of contact for people escaping from horror. Others were fellow refugees in an equally desperate plight. But some were traffickers, people who promised that they could take them the next stage of the journey in return for everything they possessed.

It’s probably fair to regard the majority of these traffickers as exploitative and abusive, but…

It’s probably fair to regard the majority of these traffickers as exploitative and abusive. It is a brutal and horrifying trade. A great deal of stories involving people smugglers resemble tales of kidnapping rather than transport. People fleeing are extremely vulnerable to fake promises and attempted rip-offs, and women, particularly those travelling on their own, are especially at risk. Cases abound of those piloting ships and boats in the Mediterranean simply abandoning their human cargo to the waves.

But given the near-impossibility of refugees reaching safe countries in which they may be able to exercise their fundamental human right to claim asylum through anything approaching conventional means, it cannot be denied that such people are also serving a fundamental human need.

Clearly not all involved in the trade are, in the words of the former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, among the ‘vilest form of people on the planet’. Confronting such hyperboles, the following truism bears endless repetition: if European society (and, for that matter, Australia) were truly concerned with the fate of refugees, they would allow them to reach their countries and claim asylum. Yet instead of this the EU demonises people smugglers to the point of seriously proposing bombing parts of North Africa in order to deter their trade, while Australia maintains concentration camps on Nauru island in order to prevent migrants setting foot on Australian soil.

We endlessly hear that human smugglers are evil people motivated only by the desire for wealth, an effective explanation as it relates to our increasing conviction that personal advancement is the only motivating factor in human affairs (indeed, we have actually come to believe that such aspiration is not only natural but also moral). The stories of people smugglers or the stories of those they have saved are hear much less often.

Of course there is enormous and widespread abuse. Of course there are, as in pretty much any industry, those at the top of the pile who get enormously rich on the basis of the brutal exploitation of basic human need, not to mention those at the bottom under very great pressure to avoid treating their passengers as anything other than human beings. But there are also staggering achievements mixed up in these cases of abuse, inspiring tales of bravery, suspense, drama and excitement.

Why is so little effort made in the media in particular to give a voice to those who have sacrificed everything at enormous risk in order to reach safety and try to protect and provide for their friends and families back home? Almost all refugees are ready-made heroes with astonishing stories to tell, tales of human endurance, ingenuity, bravery, desperation and abuse, but also of generosity and ultimately of survival and hope. However, there doesn’t seem to be much of an appetite for hearing them, possibly because at some level our feelings are conditioned by a sense of guilt and helplessness.

Libya is a case in point. We Europeans first stabilised the country by supporting its dictator and then we destabilised it by bombing it to pieces without the slightest regard for the consequences. And let us be honest: the British did much the same to Iraq. We co-created the conditions for ISIS to thrive. The victims in this situation, people who were going about their lives, developing their societies, looking to the future, these people need help from someone, somewhere. We share responsibility for their fate, and we are not in a position to blithely condemn all those who are, whatever their motivations, trying to help them escape from the hell we have helped creating.

But increasingly we’re not inclined to help. We’re full, we tell each other. We have our own problems to deal with. And so we demonise those who help them. We’re happy to go along with the story that those people stuffing desperate people onto tiny leaking boats are doing so only out of self-interest, that the human desire to help others cannot possibly be a factor.

Perhaps the Schindler stories are a form of romanticising the past, even while we disown our present responsibilities.

Perhaps the stories of all these Schindlers were never more than a comforting fairy tale about how we would all (as British, Mexican, Portuguese people) do the right thing in such circumstances, that we, and our kind, are essentially good people at heart, a form of romanticising the past in order to show ourselves in the best light, even while we disown our present responsibilities. But out there right now there is an Afghan Schindler, a Moroccan Schindler or a Libyan Schindler. We don’t get to hear about the lives that they’ve saved. We’d rather not hear their stories or the stories of the people they’ve managed to rescue.

There are millions of our fellow human beings exactly like us crammed into refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon, the Jungle in Calais, in Melilla, Kos and Lampedusa. But they’re Muslims. They might be armed, or diseased. There are far too many of them. They don’t share our values of liberalism, tolerance and generosity. They want to scrounge off our society. This is the story that we seem to find more comforting and more compelling.

Of course, back in the 1930s and 40s there were a number of people who talked in this way about European Jews. They were a minority. This time round, in addition to the very worst that humanity has to offer, the countless digital equivalents of this emblematic product of European civilisation, there’s most of us, and there’s those who we increasingly choose to represent us: people indifferent to the fate of our/their fellow humans facing tyranny, torture, starvation and death, unwilling to take responsibility for their fate, and prepared to assume the worst of those who are risking their lives to help them escape. We should learn and share their stories if we are to have the slightest chance of rescuing our humanity.

Richard Willmsen

Richard Willmsen teaches English to politics students at a university in Rome and is the author of the blog Infinite Coincidence.

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