Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Libya and the problem of conflicting scripts: humanitarianism, European security and the 'boat people'

This article examines the different treatment of North African migrants in media reports since the beginning of the 'Arab Spring' in early 2011. Western governments and aid and humanitarian organisations have been quick to discuss a humanitarian crisis at the land borders of North African states since the revolts against regional regimes prompted many thousands of people to attempt to cross them. The plight of these migrants has contributed one strand to the rationale presented for the intervention of an international coalition.

By contrast, the migrants who have sought to cross the Mediterranean have been incorporated into a security or criminality 'script' by the European governments and media outlets. It seems that the different destintations of the migrants appears to determine the validity of their flight and, should they choose to become Europe's 'irregular entrants', then they are immediately downgraded to a criminal status as they enter the discursive 'territory' of Europe that is bound up with the exigencies of electoral and bureaucratic politics.

There are a variety of implications, chief among them the violations of human rights that European governments and the EU itself risk committing. It seems that it is far preferable for the governments of the states that receive the migrants to be complicit in the creation of a humanitarian crisis at the margins of Europe's space than it is for them to deal with migrants humanely and in accordance with international legal principles. Given the popular power of the criminality discourse in Europe, it would appear that the stakes, in electoral terms, are too high for this to be a realistic option for European politicians.

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