Twisting the “Lessons of History” to Excuse Unjustifiable Violence: The Mediterranean Refugee Crisis

January 13, 2024
4 mins read

An Open Letter from Slavery and Migration Scholars

Monday, May 18, 2015.

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 military action. They
aim to employ deadly force in order smash the so-called ‘networks’ that operate
out of Libya to orchestrate the perilous sea crossings.

[ ]

There will be ‘collateral damage’, they acknowledge,
adults and children boarding or aboard the vessels under attack will be killed.
But this does not deter them. Why not?

Where is the moral justification for some of the
world’s richest nations employing their military might in a manner that will
kill men, women and children from some of the world’s poorest and most war torn
regions? A dangerous perversion of history is being peddled to answer this

In recent years, policy on unauthorized movement
across borders has drawn a distinction between the activities of ‘people
smugglers’ and those of ‘human traffickers’. Smuggling, it is said, involves voluntary,
consensual arrangements, but trafficking, entails coercion or deception, and
has been repeatedly likened to the transatlantic slave trade by politicians,
journalists, and even some contemporary anti-slavery campaigners.

The dangers of the analogy are now made manifest, with
the terms ‘smuggling’ and ‘trafficking’ being employed interchangeably in
relation to migrants crossing the Mediterranean. This elision allows EU leaders
to justify their decision to employ military force on the North African coast
as a ‘tough choice’ forced upon them by the sudden appearance of a far greater
evil – a modern slave trade.  The EU leaders present
themselves as modern-day William Wilberforces, embarking on a high-minded

But this is patently false and entirely self-serving.
As scholarship on the history of slavery makes painfully clear, what is
happening in the Mediterranean today does not even remotely resemble the
transatlantic slave trade. Enslaved Africans did not want to move. They were
held in dungeons before being shackled and loaded onto ships. They had to be
prevented from choosing suicide over forcible transportation. That
transportation led to a single and utterly appalling outcome – slavery.

Today, those embarking on the journey to Europe want to
move. If they were free to do so, they would be taking advantage of the safe
flights that budget airlines operate between North Africa and Europe at a tiny
fraction of the cost of the extraordinarily dangerous sea passage.

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.  

This is not the contemporary equivalent of the
transatlantic slave trade. To attempt to crush it with military force is not to
take a noble stand against the evil of slavery, or even against ‘trafficking’.
It is simply to 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.

There is no moral basis for the use of lethal force
against peaceable women, men and children, including victims of torture, and
those fleeing persecution and war. Europe’s leaders and people must remember
their own history, recent and not so recent, and the responsibilities Europe
bears for the bodies in the Mediterranean and the people on the boats. We call
for the resettlement of many more refugees within Europe and the dismantling of
the barriers to movement that have been put in the way of all but the most

We demand that Europe’s political leaders stop abusing
the history of transatlantic slavery to legitimize military and migrant
deterrent actions, and instead 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.

“No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last
finding the other end fastened about his own neck.” 
— Frederick Douglass

Twisting the “Lessons of History” to Excuse Unjustifiable Violence: The Mediterranean Refugee Crisis

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