Clem Sunter

The porous border flag

2015-04-28 08:11

Clem Sunter

About six years ago, I was a speaker at a conference convened by Interpol in Paris to examine the changing nature of international crime. It was attended by top police officers from around the world. My assignment was to show how scenario planning could be used to outfox the best criminal minds. Coincidentally, one of the main purposes of the conference was to rank the principal threats to global society posed by the criminals.

I always remember being surprised by the threat that ranked highest in the mind of the attendees at the time: porous borders or the fact that criminals with deadly intent could enter any country which they wanted to in order to pursue their particular brand of criminal activity. The subject of illegal immigrants came up at the same time and two border crossings were identified as being the most porous in the world.

The first was the US/Mexican border. As one American delegate said: “We have the most sophisticated technology at the official border posts to catch any illegal immigrant trying to get in, but you go ten miles on either side of those posts and we are totally vulnerable. In the old days, they used to swim across the Rio Grande. Now they tunnel. When you close one down, another one is started several miles away.” Illegal immigration is therefore an issue on which Obama walks a tightrope.

The second border was not so much a border as a crossing. It was the Mediterranean Sea, the most accessible route into Europe being considered to be from Libya into Sicily or Corsica. Once in Italy itself, it was agreed that the immigrant was free to go anywhere in the European Union. All this conversation took place before the downfall of Gaddafi and the descent of Libya into a chaotic state.

Now we have the daily tragedy of hundreds of people setting out from Africa for a better life in Europe in unseaworthy vessels after paying some unscrupulous trafficker a large sum in dollars up front. They either drown or, if they are fortunate, they are rescued by Italian navy patrol boats. Some obviously make it through undetected.

The immigrants do not just originate from Libya, but a whole host of countries in northern Africa. The situation looks like getting worse and the blame game has already started with the accusation that the current problem was created by the West’s irresponsible meddling to bring about regime change in several African countries including Libya.

Meanwhile, a few European politicians are advocating a tougher approach like the Australian one, namely the only way to stem the flow is to deny people any chance of actually getting ashore on the mainland. This ignores the fact that Australia is protected by thousands of miles of ocean. The Mediterranean is a strip by comparison. The other option being considered is military action against the traffickers, but that is likely to involve drone strikes which are becoming increasingly unpopular on account of collateral damage.

The refugee argument

An alternative strategy is being promoted by some prominent non-profit organisations, one or two with close links to the United Nations. All these people are refugees and should be welcomed with open arms by European countries. In fact, the argument goes, Europe is about to make the same mistake as many countries did in the 1930s and early 1940s when they prevented the flight of Jews from Nazi-occupied territory.

The counter-argument is that criminals and terrorists will have a field day as they mix in with the mass of immigrants. In addition health services, which are already stretched, will become totally overwhelmed. The difference between a refugee and an illegal immigrant has yet to be precisely defined even though there have been countless court cases. In other words, how bad does it have to get in the country of origin to qualify as a refugee?

Conclusion for South Africa

The flag raised at the Interpol conference is now flying high and is not going to come down any time soon for many of the affluent nations. They are desperately seeking answers.

We in South Africa too have a porous border; but we have acted in a totally different and unacceptable way towards immigrants. The latest bout of xenophobia has done lasting damage to our international reputation and our ability to absorb people from other countries. Furthermore, we have put at risk all those local companies that do business elsewhere in Africa.

Apart from the senseless and brutal murders of innocent foreigners, the worst consequence is that so many talented foreign entrepreneurs have decided to quit this country and go back to their original home. They are fleeing the fury towards them evident in many communities around the country. No amount of conciliatory words are going to persuade them to stay as this is the second time around. They are gone for good when the spark of entrepreneurship is the biggest determinant of the long-term economic fortunes of any nation and the biggest job creator.

To sum up, the flag of our porous border is painted in very stark colours as it is mixed with xenophobia of a violent nature. If we do not get our response right and very quickly, we will pay a very heavy price indeed. Worse still, xenophobia can descend into ethnophobia- the hatred of any race or ethnicity different to one’s own- and that is when the wheels will really come off in South Africa.


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