The Buzz

Lampedusa: A Tragedy of Good Intentions

Why aren’t hundreds of asylum seekers drowning trying to get to Japan? It’s a question that needs to be asked as the horrific tragedy off the Italian island of Lampedusa focuses world attention. Lampedusa is an acute symptom of a chronic problem—that hundreds of thousands are willing to risk their lives in rickety boats to migrate to other lands. The human toll of this is horrific—between ten and twenty thousand people are estimated to have died off Lampedusa since 1999. And it’s not just Europe. On the other end of the globe, in Australia, the problem has become a white-hot issue. Dozens died en route to Australia just last week; more than six hundred have perished in the last four years.

Why not Japan, too? Like Western Europe, like Australia, Japan is a stable and prosperous liberal democracy—an attractive destination. It’s a long journey, yes, but distance can’t be what’s keeping the boats away—after all, many of those going to Europe come from below the Sahara; many going to Australia come from as far away as Lebanon. Japan is also party to the two major United Nations conventions on refugees, which guarantee certain rights to asylum seekers.

The difference is that Japan is much stricter on immigration, strict enough that it’s likely in violation of its international obligations. Japanese officials use a variety of informal and extralegal means to keep asylum seekers out—and to get those who make it through to leave. European human-rights courts would blanch at such a system.

But off the coasts of Japan, people are not dying in the tens of thousands. Boats are not catching on fire, forcing people who don’t know how to swim into the waves. They aren’t capsizing, trapping people inside them as they sink. And smugglers aren’t profiting amid the horror.

Unlike Japan, Europe retains lax policies. People are granted asylum relatively easily, gaining admittance from countries where conflict simmers or is absent, and not just from all-out Syria-style slugfests. For at bottom, Europe has allowed “asylum-seeker” to become a code-word for “illegal immigrant.” That is the real problem. People know that asylum status can be readily abused—and readily seek to abuse it. German deputy interior minister Ole Schröder noted in 2012 that his country has “two times as many asylum applicants from Serbia as from Afghanistan”—in other words, far many more are trying to claim refuge from a peaceful country than one experiencing a war. Anas al-Libi, captured last week by American commandos in Libya, had spent time living as an asylee in Britain, even after he had been an active al-Qaeda operative for years. A Lebanese-Australian man in Syria recently became his adopted country's first suicide bomber, and violence between pro- and anti-Assad factions has occurred in Australia itself. Europe and Australia do not have an asylum problem—they have an illegal immigration problem. But by swaddling large numbers of illegal immigrants in the protective blanket of asylee status, by treating illegal immigrants as victims, by granting access to economic dynamism (and the welfare state), Europe and Australia encourage the smugglers—and the drownings.

The irony is that this is all done with the best of intentions. In the name of protecting people from government abuses, Europe’s governments are making circumstances in which people place themselves in the hands of abusive smugglers. No longer at the mercy of warlords, they are put at the mercy of the waves.