Conflict and Fragility


London and Lampedusa, the two extremes

22 Oct 2013 - 14:59
Source: UN Photo Phil Behan

Were it not for one of the strangest and most unsettling coincidences of modern times, London and Lampedusa could not be more dissimilar.

On one side of the equation, there is a rocky outcrop without a cinema or a bookshop, and with no more than 6,000 slow-shuffling residents to its name. On the other, a metropolis of more than 10 million that has become one of three or four genuine global nodes, a sprawl in space-time at which all the ley-lines of finance, trade, fashion and culture intersect in pulsating ebullience.

The former is lucky to have a few Italian tourists on its beaches. The latter suffers a dip in hotel occupancy while hosting the Olympic Games. What, then, could one possibly say that would place Lampedusa and London on the same plane of comparison?

A further 200 migrants from the same stricken vessel have not been found

Mention of the Mediterranean isle of Lampedusa possibly gives the game away. There is little that could propel the place into the public eye aside from the death that rings its shores. Over 400 coffins containing the bodies of drowned migrants are now being winched into a naval vessel for transportation to an unspecified grave.

Of these, 387 perished not a kilometre from the island’s shore on the night of October 2; according to one local, who managed to save 47 migrants on his own boat, the Coast Guard scrambled with all the urgency of “a little trip out.”

Another 22 were found a week later, dead in the water some 60 kilometres from the island. A further 200 migrants from the same stricken vessel have not been found.

Ruthless mafias

These tragedies point to the complex combination of causes that brought them about: the hardships in the migrants’ own homelands, the ruthless mafias in the countries they have transited (above all Libya, the port of departure), and the peculiar European habit of making it ever harder for a clandestine migrant to reach Europe, yet without shuttering up the borders completely.

Together, these factors serve to account for the fact that nearly 7,000 have died in the waters close to Sicily over the past decade: a lot of wraithlike spirits for a sliver of sea.

Now, none of this may seem at first sight particularly relevant to London, were it not for the vague sense that this vast conurbation represents everything that makes migration so very desirable. Many Londoners who love their city regard its post-war redemption, and journey out of the rubble, smog and Cockney smirks of the 1950s, as owing much to wave upon wave of foreign arrivals. The start was definitively made by Caribbean and Indian entrants.

London has proved gifted at attracting the cash from the pockets of nervous elites in countries gripped by crisis, instability or war

The middle years centred on the city’s re-emergence as the cultural and economic hub of Britain. But since the mid-1990s, the transition to a fully planetary babel of 300 languages has been led primarily by the city’s emergence as safehouse to the world’s very rich, and as service centre to global business.

This path of development has been lauded by the government, and by the city’s Conservative Mayor, Boris Johnson, for all the reasons one might expect: the imperatives of competing on the global economy require a money-pumping brand like London. Yet the risk of being so supple and enchanting in the charming of foreign plutocrats is also becoming clearer.

Middle class exodus

For the last year, house prices in London have leapt 10 percent, making it hard to acquire a modest three bedroom house in a pleasant suburb for less than a million dollars, and appearing to spur a middle class exodus. This may not appear altogether surprising.

Ever since the mid-Thatcher years, and barring a couple of short dips, the rising price of houses in London has been a staple feature of national economic life, pitting despair at unearned wealth against the self-satisfaction of serendipitous millionaires. But what is happening now appears to be heading off the charts of all that is fair and feasible.

A report in The New York Times indicates that 83 billion pounds’ worth of properties were bought in London last year without any mortgage or loan support: in other words, they were acquired entirely with ready cash.

Stories describing the sale of homes on exclusive streets or in as-yet unbuilt apartment blocks to buyers in Asia or elsewhere, who may at most visit the site once or twice a year, are common fare. Estimates from The Daily Telegraph suggest 65 to 85 percent of central London properties are now being bought by foreigners.

Money matters

Most pertinently, London has proved gifted at attracting the cash from the pockets of nervous elites in countries gripped by crisis, instability or war. In 2011, the cash-to-brick inflow was sourced in Greece and Italy. Since then, it is footloose Syrian and Middle Eastern capital that has reportedly been intent on treasuring an over-priced bit of England.

It is here that the circle comes all the way back to Lampedusa. For just as the wandering elites of Damascus, Cairo or Tripoli seek salvation in the accommodating property tax and investment regime established by an ultra-liberal British elite, the peripatetic poor and needy of the very same countries are drowning to the distant putting sound of an indifferent life-boat.

Some 30,000 migrants have arrived by sea to Italy since the start of this year

According to the UN, some 30,000 migrants have arrived by sea to Italy since the start of this year; 7,000 of them, by far the largest single group, have come from Syria. The other largest groups are those from Eritrea and Somalia, both of them subject to the vagaries of violence in the Horn of Africa.

London certainly seems a vibrant rebuke to all ethnic prejudice. But when a migrant only matters because of their money — a lot of money — one may be drawn to wonder whether this is just a more refined sort of racism, one that regards all that is wealthy as whiter than white.