Monday, May 29, 2006

Dangerous Crossings

By Richard Norman


Two articles yesterday on dangerous crossings—one about the plight of Somalis attempting to cross the Gulf of Aden to land in Yemen, and the other about eleven west Africans found dead aboard a boat near Barbados (originally bound for the Canary Islands)—raise interesting points about the central views of cosmopolitanism.

The first two points are not particularly controversial. Most people agree that migrants should be discouraged from risking their lives. Nor is this just the majority opinion in Western countries. A recent chart topper in the Democratic Republic of Congo suggests that Congolese cultivate their own gardens at home rather than risk their lives or livelihoods seeking fairer fields abroad. This idea is promoted by the UN and migrant organizations in Somalia and many other desperate countries. It is much easier to convince potential migrants to act within existing immigration law when their lives might be at stake if they do not.

But those who deem their lives at home to be of little or no value cannot be easily dissuaded. They are not, finally, gulls or easy marks. They weigh their odds and make a choice. “After all the danger I've been through, what is some more?” asks one Somali, attempting a crossing. This takes, many agree, a tremendous and deeply human courage.

So the cosmopolitan is split: migrants must be dissuaded from attempting illegal crossings, they must follow the processes of the law; and yet a great deal of sympathy exists for the plight of those who do risk their lives. We hope everything possible is done to stop them from getting in the boat, but once they shove off we hope everything possible is done so that they arrive safely on the opposite shore. The issue of immigration in extremis seems to circumstantially allow the pre-eminence of the pursuit of liberty and happiness over the necessary strictures of international law. But it reveals a hedged answer to the more interesting question of whether an inalienable right exists to risk one’s life in order to make it more liveable.

Photograph: Chris Brandis/AP