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.
So it should be no surprise that a continent which has placed intentions over outcomes is reacting to Lampedusa as it is—namely, by painting the tragedy as a result of tough border security. “There is a divide between those who prioritise the saving of lives and those who insist on border enforcement,” blares the Guardian. A Human Rights Watch researcher notes “that security crackdowns on land crossings such as the Greece-Turkey border only displaced migrant flows and often forced more boats into the sea.” (That Europe's people rightly demand their governments maintain reasonably secure borders is left undiscussed in such circles.) Yet tough security isn’t the problem—it’s the solution. If people didn’t think they could get into Europe, didn’t think Europe would give asylum status so freely, and didn’t think they could work in Europe illegally, they’d have little reason to take such risks to get there—unless, unlike the present hordes, they really were fleeing severe persecution, and Europe really were the only place they could go. In turn, if Europe’s leaders canned their loose definition of asylum, they wouldn’t be so afraid to let troubled boats reach Europe’s shores. They wouldn’t be tempted to ignore or turn back boats in distress—sometimes with deadly results—because they could bring people to safety ashore without effectively admitting them to Europe.
There is a further irony here. If Europe’s leaders listened to Europe’s people, they’d have done all that already. Around the world, including in Europe, people tend to dislike mass immigration—legal or illegal. Yet in many places, especially in Europe, policy is set by narrow social and political elites, elites with very different attitudes on such matters. These elites find the nationalism of their inferiors—and of places like Japan—provincial, inhumane and ill-intentioned. But how many ships capsize off inhumane Japan? Perhaps these elites should heed the request that Lampedusa’s mayor made to Italy’s prime minister—to “come down to the island and help me count the bodies.” For in politics, outcomes sometimes count for far more than good intentions.