The baroque scenes that unfolded on the Mediterranean coast of North Africa over the last two weeks, described by Marc Perelman in his Page 1 report, seem as though they were lifted from some futuristic end-of-the-world movie epic rather than from today’s headlines. But they are real. In two separate assaults a week apart, hundreds of desperate African job-seekers raced across the Moroccan sand and flung themselves at the 10-foot-high razor-wire fences surrounding the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, hoping somehow to scale or breach the barrier and land on the territory of prosperous, borderless Europe.
The human waves were turned back by gunfire — whether from Spanish or Moroccan troops remains unclear — that left more than a dozen people dead. Morocco has now begun cracking down on the human tide gathering at its coast in recent years. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, have been driven unceremoniously into the desert in recent days. The crowds of migrants, once tolerated as a fact of modern life, are starting to look dangerous.
This moment should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the immigration debate and the broader issue of North-South relations with open eyes in recent years. The unrelieved poverty that plagues much of the Southern Hemisphere, particularly Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, drives a constant stream of hungry migrants north in search of work. The industrialized nations of Europe and North America greet the migrants with a mixture of welcome and alarm, compassion and racism, a hunger for cheap labor and a fear of social disruption. Governments try to control the flow, but their borders prove impossibly porous, and the tide of human need surges on relentlessly. Each year the desperation of the migrants’ efforts seems to grow. They come in makeshift rafts across the ocean, in refrigerator trucks across the desert, in the wheel housings of jumbo jets. It was only a matter of time before the mobs began storming the gates.
Human rights groups were framing the issue this week in terms of humane treatment of the deportees, and that is the right question for the near term. The sight of starving women and children dumped in the desert to die should touch every conscience. As Jews, we have a special interest in the plight of the immigrant and the uprooted. We must demand that migrants be treated fairly.
But the issues raised in North Africa this month go far beyond immigrant rights. The deaths at Ceuta and Melilla force us to confront the imbalance in our global economy. A planet that is half-starving and half-bloated cannot survive. Immigration reform will not solve the problems of African or Latin American poverty and inequality, unless we mean to move the entire population of the Southern Hemisphere to the North. No, our borders will remain battlegrounds until we come to grips with the tasks of global development and economic justice. In an age of instant communications, the poor will not sit still while the rich gorge themselves.