Academics Defend Freedom of Movement


It is estimated that over 22,000 people have died in the Mediterranean Sea trying to migrate to Europe from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia since the beginning of the 21st Century. In April of 2015 alone, “at least five boats carrying almost 2000 migrants” sank.

The latest response by the European Union to these events has been to increase border patrols and tighten security, as well as launch a military campaign to stop the smuggling of humans. Now, more than 300 scholars have signed on to a letter objecting to these plans, and calling for a defense of freedom of movement. They first describe the recent developments:

European Union political leaders have announced that their response to the staggering loss of life amongst migrants crossing the Mediterranean in unseaworthy vessels will be the use of force to smash the so-called ‘networks’ that operate out of Libya to orchestrate the perilous sea crossings. How? On May 11, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini stated that “No one is thinking of bombing. I’m talking about a naval operation,” but two days later,the Guardian reported on a leaked strategy paper for an EU mission in the Mediterranean and in Libyan territorial waters proposing an air and naval campaign. This, the paper said, would lead to ‘collateral damage’. In other words, adults and children boarding or aboard the vessels under attack might be killed. With or without bombs, such ‘collateral damage’ is already a known product of the measures being employed by the EU to push back, deter, and divert migrants, including those seeking asylum.

They then ask:

Where is the moral justification for some of the world’s richest nations employing their naval and technological might in a manner that leads to the death of men, women and children from some of the world’s poorest and most war torn regions?

The EU has attempted to defend this kind of response by analogizing the current smuggling to the slave trade, a comparison the authors of the letter argue is “patently false and self-serving.” They note that, unlike slaves, those being smuggled to Europe “want to move.”

If they were free to do so, they would be taking advantage of the flights that budget airlines operate between North Africa and Europe at a tiny fraction of the cost of the extraordinarily dangerous sea passage. And it is not ‘slavers’ or ‘traffickers’ who are preventing them from accessing this safe route.

It’s true that would-be migrants are sometimes held in terrifying conditions in Libya, but not in dungeons as a precursor to being forcibly shipped as slaves. Rather, many are held in immigration detention centres, partly funded by the EU, where both adults and children are at risk of violence, including whippings, beatings and torture. And the outcome for those who make it onto boats is uncertain. Some die en route, some survive only to be exploited and abused at the point of destination. But others who survive secure at least a chance of accessing rights, protection, family reunion, education, work, freedom from persecution, and so on.

What the EU is doing is to simply “continue a long tradition in which states, including slave states of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, use violence to prevent certain groups of human beings from moving freely.”

The authors demand that Europe’s leaders “recall, and act upon the demands for freedom of movement, or ‘a right of locomotion’ articulated by African American anti-slavery activists of the nineteenth century.”

The whole letter is here. To add yourself as a signatory, email [email protected] with the subject “SIGN”.

Thanks to Alistair Welchman (UT San Antonio) for bringing this letter to my attention.

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