All at Sea

The tragedy of the Greece shipwreck in which hundreds of people are confirmed dead as I write, and up to 100 children were said to be below deck, is a metaphor for our times. It is first a humanitarian and political disgrace – an ongoing one I know – but one that we have become disgustingly inured to.

Survivors from the overcrowded fishing boat that capsized and sank on Wednesday off the Greek coast in one of the worst disasters in the Mediterranean in recent years have told doctors and police that women and children were travelling in the hold of the vessel.

“Right now everything is guesswork but we are working on the assumption that as many as 500 are missing,” said Nicolaos Spanoudakis, a police inspector. “Women and children, it seems, were in the hold.”

It’s a desperate desolate story that’s met now, across Europe by a thuggish fascist populism that makes capital out of misery and discounts both the humanity of those taunting and those suffering.

Some reports said they were trying to get from Egypt to Italy.  “They’re from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Egypt,” said Giorgos Farvas, Kalamata’s deputy mayor.

It’s the same everywhere as people flee the chaos that manifests across the world. In a world in which everything is made precarious, unstable, unpredictable we are all in the same boat, even if we pretend otherwise. In this sense we’re all migrants and refugees of something, somewhere. What are you fleeing?

But this has become so mundane it barely registers.

As Irish journalist Sally Hayden writes: “How has the mass drowning of people become in any way normalised?”

I mean, it’s a good question, but the sorry answer is: much the same way that routine police violence, endemic poverty, school shootings, drugs deaths, or political corruption have become completely normalised.

Capitalism’s horrors have become banal.

Hayden reminds us that more than 27,000 people have died or gone missing on the Mediterranean since 2014, though researchers say those numbers may be greatly underestimated.

Hayden cites Ylva Johansson, the EU’s commissioner for migration and home affairs, tweeting saying she was “deeply affected” by the tragedy. “We have a collective moral duty to dismantle the criminal networks,” she wrote.

But Johansson’s rhetoric suggests that this is some kind of terrible mistake, a tragedy, a mishap, some false ‘accident at sea’. It’s nothing of the sort. Hayden writes:  “the fact is that human smuggling networks only exist – and will likely always exist – because there are no safe and legal routes to safety for a large proportion of the world’s population. There are no visas available for them; there is no “queue”; there is no chance for assessment; there is no way to claim their right to protection, which is guaranteed under international law, without reaching the territory of the safe country first. This is not a meritocracy, even when it comes to suffering. Europe’s role in all of this is often painted as one of inaction. But there has been prolonged and decisive action.”

As Italy mourns Silvio Berlusconi’s death with a grotesque pageantry, it’s worth remembering his role as the founding father of what we still call – cutely – ‘populism’. Berlusconi’s playbook of playing on racists fears and tropes, ultra slick marketing and media campaigns, retaining power to avoid accountability, delegitimizing the judiciary, and suing and threatening journalism can be seen across the world. That it’s also peppered by some horrendous misogyny and retreat to traditional gender roles is not a surprise in what American writer Frank Bruni has called ‘The Brotherhood of Philandering Oligarchs’.

We’ve just seen our version of the brotherhood – and I mean ‘our’ in the same sense as you could call any abusive distant relative that you had the misfortune to have to spend time with – as Boris Johnson leaves the stage. But in his departure he left all the hallmarks of hubris, contempt and narcissism that these figures seem to exude. But another characteristic of Berlusconi’s legacy – and this is true across the horrors he has spawned – is the legitimization of neo-fascist groups within center-right coalitions and governments. In Italy and England this means people actually in the heart of government, in France this is an imminent certainty.

The ‘other story’ pressing (unsuccessfully) for your attention this week was the spikes in sea water temperature and the panic it produced in scientific communities across the globe. This is the classic climate scenario; an event takes place of huge significance and normally dignified and placid scientists lose their shit, and nobody really listens cos nobody’s really there and nobody really witnesses it. This is a question of lived experience and knowledge and a profound one for us humans, all on this unstable boat together.

But the point is that no-one is really connecting these two stories: the terrified people on overcrowded boats and the terrible weather springing up everywhere on your timeline, or enjoyed in your back garden. The Tories answer, this won’t come as a surprise, is to go all Dickensian, shifting people from small boats to BIG boats. Hulks they were called in 1776. Just to show how far we’ve progressed it’s worth noticing that: “To increase London’s prison capacity, in 1776 Parliament passed the “Hulks Act” (16 Geo III, c.43). Although overseen by local justices of the peace, the hulks were to be directly managed and maintained by private contractors.”

We’ve been deporting people for three hundred years. It used to be called transportation.

But back to the insufferable heat, the record-breaking temperatures, the melting ice caps, the moron-media and the movements we still insist on calling ‘populist’. If you think the refugee crisis is something now, you aren’t paying attention. When another ‘Phew what a scorcher!’ headline hits in 2025, watch them drown.

This week saw the passing of the writer for our dystopian times, Cormac McCarthy. This was a few years ago now – though it could have been written yesterday – and it’s always stuck in my mind: “The stone drops into the pond and a second later it is smooth again. You will turn the page and carry on with your life. Last week we learnt that climate change could eliminate half the world’s species; that 25 primate species are already slipping into extinction; that biological repositories of carbon are beginning to be released, decades ahead of schedule. But everyone is watching and waiting for everyone else to move. The unspoken universal thought is this: if it were really so serious, surely someone would do something?”

Comments (9)

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  1. Cathie Lloyd says:

    Very timely, thankyou. Anyone who can work on personalising the regular disasters is doing something to counter the dehumanisation through capitalism. Lets remember ‘relations between people become relations between things’ which KM wrote about.

  2. Tim Hoy says:

    Another fine reminder of why I subscribe to Bella Caledonia. Thanks Mike. I no longer watch TV or read “news” papers so am reliant on other sources for information that can be trusted as neither of those come close to the standard of accuracy and integrity I have come to trust here.

    The normalisation of dishonesty, scapegoating and overt dogma from those who appear to be disproportionately influencing public opinion are a constant source of despair for me and I remain perplexed that so many people will reiterate the tabloid bile as if it were even vaguely representative of their real lives.

    Brilliant prose as ever. Thanks again.

  3. Sandy Watson says:

    Yes. Apathy, inertia, fear and all other reasons for not begetting angry and upset enough to act.

    And future mass migration due to weather events, floods, drought, sea level inundation, famine…and wars – what else are the people affected expected to do? – will lead to even more warring as states in lands that are less-affected try to prevent migration / immigration by those who are most affected.

    I don’t see how anything other than a pan-global approach can get near dealing with this. And I don’t see any signs of that even being considered.

  4. Alan C says:

    The people smugglers should be jailed yes but so should the inhumane bastards that refuse to allow safe routs, they are well aware desperate folk are going to take the risk and so also aware some are going to die. It’s fortunate the RNLI isn’t gov funded or the death toll would be much higher than it is.

  5. Tom Ultuous says:

    As far as the UK is concerned there’s an easy solution to this. The UK wants the channel crossings to stop, France wants to clear the Calais camps. Any refugees that cross the channel should be returned to France. Once that starts happening they’ll stop coming to Calais in the first place.
    How can we bring this about? Firstly they’ll have to improve relations with France and make a deal with them BUT France will never agree until the UK agrees to take its fair share of refugees by legal routes. As the Tories won’t agree to that because they’re reliant on the racist vote and they can’t build houses for fear of crashing their housing Ponzi scheme, we’ll go through this circus ad infinitum. Smokescreen after smokescreen.

    As Sandy says, we need a global approach otherwise when China becomes too warm to inhabit it’s game over.

    1. John Learmonth says:


      Net immigration to the UK is circa 400,000 per annum
      Nobody has any idea as to the extent of illegal immigration but best guess circa 200,000 per annum.
      That’s basically the city of Glasgow every year coming in to the UK. How long will this be viable?
      As to China, its a communist dictatorship, nobody’s emigrating there and if the Chinese were free to travel I suspect they’d be leaving in droves just as the people of Semi-free Hong Kong are currently doing irrespective of the temperature and for some strange reason they all want to come and live in the capitalist west despite us all been a bunch of fascists. Nobody’s fleeing to Cuba……..

      1. Tom Ultuous says:

        John, from “The UK offered protection (in the form of refugee status, humanitarian protection, alternative forms of leave and resettlement) to 22,648 people (including dependants) in the year ending March 2023. This number is around a third (31%) fewer than the number in the year ending March 2022”. The UK takes in a lot less than the likes of France, Germany, Spain, Italy, etc.
        When China becomes uninhabitable I don’t think the Chinese will be asking permission to any country it fancies moving to.

  6. florian albert says:

    Mike Small’s article is triggered by the loss of life when a ship sank recently in the Mediterranean. In his recently published diaries – ‘Didn’t You Use To Be Chris Mullin ?’ – the author comments on a nearly identical event, where 500 people perished, in April 2016.
    Mullin ends his comment by writing, ‘the more we let in, the more will come.’
    This is at the heart of the matter.
    Finland, Sweden, France, Spain, Germany, Austria and Italy have all experienced the growth of political parties committed to limiting immigration. Several of these countries have a decades-long tradition of social democracy.
    Voters across Europe want to limit immigration.
    Denouncing a ‘thuggish fascist populism’ doesn’t cut it, particularly in a country, Scotland, where the Left does not even bother to contest elections.

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