Anyone who says we are all born equal is in a dream world. We are not. Poverty, grinding and soul-destroying, is all around us. Walk through any city, anywhere on the planet, with your eyes open and you will see it in all its grubby obscenity. This is not new – it has always been thus. Since time immemorial there have been The Haves and The Have Nots. I see nothing to suggest it will ever change. It is human nature to aspire to more, to a better life, but unfortunately it is also human nature to put oneself first, above others. What is happening in the central Mediterranean now, every day, is merely the latest manifestation of this.
I see poverty everywhere I go.
In Cairo, every morning and evening in the taxi travelling between my hotel (a luxurious complex a mile or so from the Pyramids) and the office downtown we would be ensnared in the city’s appalling traffic, four or five lines of cars and buses, motor cycles and donkey carts, squeezed onto a road built for no more than three lanes. Invariably, between the lines of almost stationary traffic, there would be dozens of penniless and destitute people, suffocating on the heavy fumes in the air from the traffic, their hands held out imploringly for a few coins. Some would be selling individual cigarettes or matches. Others, always younger women, would be carrying a crying baby on one hip as a further encouragement. They were all risking life and limb for a few crumbs of comfort, a few pence, to keep themselves and their families going for another 24 hours.
In Sofia, there was a young guy, probably in his middle twenties, no more, with crushed and twisted legs, pushing himself along on a plywood cart on the sort of castors you see on office chairs. We saw him pretty much every day in the area around our office, close to the bus and train stations. Whatever the weather – hot and sunny, bitterly cold and snowy, or pouring with rain – he would be dressed in the same filthy jacket and flannel trousers with no shoes or socks, his hand held out for small change and scraps of food.
In Bucharest, across from my hotel, was a bridge across a river that I crossed on my walk to work. It was always crowded with old and penniless people, selling whatever they could lay their hands on. One old guy had a set of bathroom scales and was charging a few cents to weigh yourself. I never saw anyone take him up on the offer, but he never gave up – he would be there when I left for work about 8 and still there on my return in the evening, every day.
I have seen cardboard cities in London and Edinburgh, kids scavenging trash cans in Manhattan and Almaty, and drunken derelicts slumped in doorways everywhere.
The common factor is that none of them have any hope, no prospect of improvement in their life. Every day is simply a battle to survive.
I see wealth, too, everywhere I go.
In Cairo, the people in the bank all led comfortable family lives in middle class suburbs – one guy actually lived in a penthouse flat overlooking Tahrir Square and rushed home from work every evening to join the throng there protesting for democracy. I sometimes wonder what happened to him. In Sofia and Bucharest there were Range Rovers with darkened windows cruising the streets day and night, probably carrying the local Mafiosi and corrupt government officials between their luxury apartments and night clubs and offices. Almaty was awash with Toyota Land Cruisers and Hummers, guzzling the country’s cheap petrol (a pint of milk cost several times as much as a gallon of unleaded). The streets were closed and cordoned off by armed troops whenever the corrupt President sped through in his armour plated Mercedes – I was threatened once by them as I returned to my apartment laden with a Saturday grocery shop and happened to cross one of those roads (it was the first time I became aware that this happened on a regular basis). London and Manhattan are among the wealthiest places on earth, where property prices are unaffordable to the average Joe Public, and whole swathes of the cities owned by Russian and Arab billionaires (or in the case of Manhattan Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan executives).
Do they take any notice of the poverty around them? Do they care?
Aspiring to get ahead, to move up the social scale, is a natural ambition for anybody. I come, proudly, from working class stock – my mother was in service, a chambermaid at Chiddingstone Castle in Kent, between the First and Second parts of the World War in the 1930s. There she met my father, who was a gardener. After the war and service in North Africa and Burma, he worked as a coal delivery man, a removal man, a stoker in the local gasworks and a mill operator in a plastics factory. My mother didn’t work at all until I was 14, and then spent 20-odd years working in various cleaning and shop assistant jobs. We lived all my life in a low-rent council house (in the 50s and 60s they did not have the reputation they do now). Money was always tight, although I never realised it – I don’t think dad ever made more than 20 or 30 pounds a week, mum even less – but I had a great childhood and never wanted for anything. About the only thing I can remember missing out on was the odd school trip, skiing in Switzerland or exchange visits with French students, because the cost (even though heavily subsidized) was simply beyond our means. It never bothered me.
When I got my first job, in the City working as a filing clerk in a major stockbroker’s office, my parents were overjoyed – it just was not the kind of thing they ever imagined could happen to a council house kid. For the first couple of years I thought nothing of it, it was just a job that kept me in beer and cigarettes. Then, when I was 19, still a kid really, dad died from cancer (all that dust inhaled during a lifetime of toil) at the young age of 56, and left me the breadwinner. It made me, once I had sobered up some months later, realise there was more to life and I began to work hard and want to better myself. It’s been a struggle, with as many downs as ups, but all in all I’ve done ok. And I got roaring drunk the day I outlived my dad – it was a kind of belated mourning.
So I understand the desire of the poor victims in the Mediterranean, who mostly just want a better life and head to Europe to find it. What I cannot understand, and will never come close to understanding, is why they take the risks they do to achieve it. Why they spend months struggling to get to the southern Med coast, and then all their money to board a leaky death-trap of a boat to make a sea crossing that even in the best weather is dangerous. Their desperation and determination is breathtaking, and that makes the tragic deaths of so many of them the more terrible. Worse still are the women and children, innocent victims, who perish with them for love and loyalty to their spouses and fathers. There is no doubt that people trafficking is an evil line of work……..
It’s also a line of work that has existed for thousands of years. Entire civilizations have been built by it. The Romans and Egyptians and Mesopotamians, the Persian Empire, Incas and Vikings and Mongols all used slave labour, typically the survivors of their defeated enemies, to build and farm and serve them. More recently, in their colonial heyday, European nations like the French and German, Spanish and Portuguese, Dutch and British carved out global trade empires through the judicious use of slavery (even after its official abolition in the mid-19th century). When those trading Empires waned, as they inevitably do, and the fading European powers left their African and Eastern colonies, their former servants were left to fend for themselves, usually with little support from their former “masters”, with no real experience of self-governance, and always facing a power vacuum that was often filled by a brutal and corrupt ex-military tyrant (think Idi Amin or Saddam Hussein) who continued to hold the “lower” classes in servitude, while retaining a corrupt and fawning retinue of old friends and supporters. The result has been a succession of post-colonial struggles to modernise that has engulfed the African continent, the Middle East, the Indian sub-continent and the Far East that continues to this day.
It is these circumstances that have prompted the illegal migrations that are continuing all over the world, often with such tragic consequences, and provide the people traffickers, wherever they are, with such rich pickings. That in the Mediterranean is only one example, and the one most in the public eye right now, as it takes place in the full glare of tv news networks and an insidious spread of anti-immigrant rhetoric across the entire EU.
It’s all very well calling for action against the traffickers. Blockading Libyan ports and trying to stop the migrant vessels as soon as they leave territorial waters can only go so far. If Libyan waters become no-go areas the traffickers will simply up-sticks and move a few hundred miles along the coast. There are plenty of small, poor and unobtrusive fishing villages along the entire southern Mediterranean coastline that will serve equally well. The number of vessels that EU navies will need to station in the area to form an effective blockade, even with the most sophisticated satellite technology, will be unsustainable, and the traffickers need only be patient.
Other routes will be opened as well, overland through the Levant, or by a longer road through an Iraq that is struggling with Western democracy, through Afghanistan and the Caucasus region and the bandit country that is eastern Ukraine and southern Russia, regions where there remain sufficient numbers of organised criminals who will be quite happy to help out, if the price is right. The trade is simply too profitable to just close down because of a few EU patrol ships in the Med. Besides, the traffickers are not the root of the problem, they are merely the facilitators and profiteers.
The cause of all this tragedy remains the desperate poverty that far too many millions of people across the world are trapped in. It remains the continuing catalogue of conflict raging across Africa and the Middle East. Think of the slaughter that continues disgracefully in Syria, where the butcher Assad uses the destruction of his own subjects to cling to power while the major nations like the EU and the US and the discredited UN allow it to happen. Consider the anarchy in Libya, an oil rich state that has never recovered from the turmoil of the Arab Spring and the fall of Gaddafi, now torn to shreds by lawless competing militia and without a credible government. Look at an Iraq still struggling with post-Saddam democracy, or Afghanistan trying to move forward against an allegedly defeated but still strong Taliban – both countries abandoned by UK and US forces that helped them to a kind of freedom but without a credible Plan B in place to sustain and create law and order afterwards. In sub-Saharan Africa, Boko Haram and IS jihadists continue to do much as they like in Northern Nigeria, in South Sudan and the Horn of Africa with little to stop them.
In Central America poverty forces thousands to try dangerous overland routes to the riches of America, riding on top of freight trains for days on end, or in the Far East migrants choose the dangerous sea-routes to Australia in a fashion remarkably similar to the Mediterranean crossings – and with as much tragedy (if less publicity, at least in my part of the world).
I don’t have the answers. In fact, I’m not sure there are any answers. It seems to me that poverty and oppression and the slaughter of the innocents are as much a part of this life on Earth as are the seasons and the sun rising in the east. The situation is merely (and that is probably the wrong word….) more visible now because of the long reach of satellite tv news carriers and the internet, bringing their awful pictures to your SmartTV or phone or mobile device within hours – sometimes even minutes – of the tragedy actually happening.
Human nature needs to change, dramatically, for the situation to improve. There needs to be a concerted effort to tackle those conflicts and that grinding poverty that induce desperate people to take desperate measures to escape from their desperate lives. I see nothing to suggest that is likely to happen in the foreseeable future.
Which means that, no matter what actions the EU or the UN or any other organisation or country is likely to take now or in the coming months, it will be no more than a sticking plaster to solve a global problem that needs drastic and probably impossible surgery to heal.