In August 1991, with the world’s media dominated by the chronic instability in Russia and the aftermath of the violent eviction of the Iraqi army from Kuwait earlier that year, a sequence of events in the Adriatic Sea provides an uncanny foretaste of the current surge of desperate people across the Mediterranean from north Africa, as well as overland from Syria through Turkey, Greece and beyond.
One consequence of the collapse of the Soviet bloc was the disintegration of the already weakened Albanian economy in the winter of 1990-91. The long-time leader Enver Hoxha, who died in 1985, had bequeathed a stagnant and unstable economy which, by the end of the decade, was ensuring increasing poverty in an already poor country. In the early months of 1991, many young Albanians were attempting to get across the Adriatic to a better life in Italy. They had little success.
Then, in August, the situation had become so desperate that merchant ships were hijacked by thousands of young people, especially in the port of Durrës, and the crews forced to set sail for Italy. At least 10,000 of them were on the 8,000-tonne merchant ship Vlora – some reports said twice that number – when it made the 200-kilometre crossing to the southern Italian port of Bari. Caught by surprise, the police there tried and failed to stop the refugees coming ashore; some even jumped overboard to swim towards land. The incident made news across Europe, at least for a couple of days, but then the media moved on.
Faced with this huge number of sudden arrivals, the police rounded them up and detained them in the only place in the city that could handle such a number securely, namely the local football stadium. There, they started the process of enforced repatriation to Albania. A few were allowed to stay; most were forced home. But the Italians did at least provide substantial financial aid to the faltering government in Tirana, and even arranged for Italian army units to distribute food within the country.
Within a few months, Albania began to make a slow and tortuous recovery. All that was left of the experience were images of desperate people jumping off a ship and trying to get ashore. Today, however, the resonance with people clambering ashore from flimsy dinghies onto Greek islands – or facing police in the centre of Budapest – is all too apparent.
The long-term view
Over the years since it began in 2001, this column has on occasion highlighted a prescient comment made in 1974 by the economic geographer Edwin Brooks. This warned of a dystopic world that had to be avoided: “a crowded glowering planet of massive inequalities of wealth buttressed by stark force yet endlessly threatened by desperate people in the global ghettoes” (see "The Implications of Ecological Limits to Growth in
Terms of Expectations and Aspirations in Developed and Less Developed
Countries", in Anthony Vann & Paul Rogers (eds), Human Ecology and World Development [Plenum Press, 1974]).
This is a forewarning of the experience of recent months: namely, desperate people fleeing the war-zones of Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan and the repression of Eritrea; but also of the millions more who face relative poverty and marginalisation, not least across sub-Saharan Africa.
There has been some humanitarian reaction in Europe to these forces. But the more general response has been the "securitisation" of the issue, whereby migrants are seen as threats. One head of government, the UK’s David Cameron, deliberately used the term “swarm” to describe the few thousand migrants who had got as far as Calais – though these actually form a tiny proportion of the hundreds of thousands of people desperate to get into Europe (see "Mediterranean dreams, climate realities", 23 April 2015).
It may be that over the coming months, humanitarian concern will prevail and European states will find ways to cooperate more effectively. But the prognosis is not good. And in the longer term, an extension of the securitising approach will be even more damaging as it is applied not just to the movement of people but to the closely related area of climate change.
A recent article by Nick Buxton and Ben Hayes focuses on this issue (see "Ten years on: Katrina, militarisation and climate change", 28 August 2015). It points to the manner in which the future effects of climate change are being seen as threats to the wellbeing of comfortable peoples in the west, implying that what is needed is to put much more emphasis on maintaining security rather than preventing the excesses of climate disruption.
Where the two elements come together – current migration issues and future climate disruption – will actually be in Europe. Around the continent are large centres of population in the Middle East, south-west Asia, north Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, where climate change, if not prevented, will lead to marked decreases in rainfall with declining food production and consequent social and economic hardship. The asymmetric nature of climate change as it is now being understood means that these large regions surrounding one of the richest parts of the world will have the greatest difficulties. As a result, they are likely to become drivers of migration to a far larger extent, with numbers measured not in the hundreds of thousands but in millions.
In these circumstances, the consequences of securitising these issues will be huge, far greater than anything yet experienced. For this reason alone, it is essential that the current crisis is handled primarily with humanitarian concern, rather than by trying to “close the castle gates” – which in any case is impossible in a globalised system. What happened to the Vlora nearly twenty-five years ago sharpens the choice over these possible futures.