The fires in Europe

Published July 26, 2023
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.

BRITISH tourists interviewed by the New York Times on the burning Greek island of Rhodes seemed terribly confused. Some, who had just arrived, seemed puzzled by the inferno in the midst of which they had landed. Why had they not been informed by the tour company some of them asked, entitled as ever even in their emergency. Why had their flights been permitted to land or their resort not had better evacuation plans? Some went from hotel to hotel until all the hotels began to evacuate. Thousands and thousands of others walked along the beach as they watched the fire grow angrier and stronger, its flames rising against the dark night.

The puzzlement of the tourists in Greece is telling. These are not people used to a climate catastrophe, especially not one licking the footsteps of their luxury resorts. These are the people whose passports usually ensure that special arrangements are made for them. Unlike the people of the developing world who must dance with death every time it rains or when it gets hot or when rivers flood their banks, they are not used to nature beating them up and bringing their lives and livelihoods to a grinding halt. They do not know what it is like to do without electricity or water or a proper dry and safe place in which to live. They especially do not expect to have to deal with privations or inconvenience while on their luxury vacations.

In Europe, many of them are on vacations that last anywhere from four to six weeks. Offices all over the continent are empty as entire families set off for places such as the island of Rhodes or similar destinations in Italy or other spots around the Mediterranean.

For all of these people, as well as the Greeks and Italians themselves, this summer is likely to be a wake-up call. For the first time in modern history, these places are having to contend with temperatures rising into the upper 40s (Celsius). The small rooms of old historic sites and the general lack of air conditioning means that the temperatures are high enough to make people sick not only with heatstroke but also with food poisoning and other heat-related ailments. All of these routine types of inconveniences are for the lucky ones, obviously; all those on the islands of Rhodes, Corfu, Evia and even Crete have had to confront far more cataclysmic situations. Even after nearly 20,000 people were evacuated, scores more will have to leave as well.

The rescue missions being undertaken for wealthy tourists show what can be done when there is true intention for life to be saved.

The rescue missions being undertaken for these wealthy tourists also show what can be done when there is true intention for life to be saved. Sadly, this intention was not present mere weeks ago when a boat full of migrants including many Pakistanis came close to Greek shores. According to a CNN investigation that has taken place since the accident happened, testimonies from those that survived the sinking of the boat containing hundreds of people, including Pakistanis, Syrians, Palestinians, and others allege that the Greek coastguard played a role in the sinking of the vessel. Some survivors have said that the coastguard attached a rope to the boat which was partly why it sank. For its part, the coastguard has either refused to give statements or alleged that it was nowhere near the boat when it sank.

At the same time, coastguards from Italy, Greece and several other nations have been found to engage in illegal operations to push migrant vessels away from their shores. Rights groups that were in touch with people on the boat when it sank say that the accident shows just how cruel and callous such border forces can be towards migrants. In contrast to the scrambling to save wealthy tourists, there is an effort to deliberately cause migrants to stay away from their shores. Some may point out that it is ironical that nations who are blamed for endangering innocent migrants now confront deadly fires on the land from which they wanted to bar them.

The tourists facing the fires in Greece do not deserve to be caught in the horrific blaze. But the comparison is necessary to highlight how rich and white innocent people are treated with greater care and attract the world’s compassion. Poor and brown innocent people are considered far less worthy; cruelties are imposed on them — even ‘punitive’ actions that can easily be avoided are considered necessary and are entirely without culpability. Newsreels of people camped at train stations and airports in Greece bear eerie similarities to the hundred or so survivors rescued from the migrant boat. The boat survivors were cowering under the plastic blankets, the tourists fan themselves against the heat. The fury of an earth abused so roundly by everyone on it is oddly evenhanded in dealing with the rich and the poor.

For a century, the Europeans pillaged the world and gathered up the spoils to power their Industrial Revolution. The proceeds from that epoch, the largesse produced when raw materials for the goods manufactured were obtained from plunder and domination, have created tremendous wealth for generations of Europeans. It is the refusal to share these proceeds with the children of those they plundered that is behind the almost-deliberate sinking of migrant boats.

Soon, however, there may not be a whole lot left to guard behind the walls of Fortress Europe. With floods and fires now reaching them with the same frequency as those that plague developing nations like Pakistan, the physical conditions of survival on the European continent appear to be deteriorating with just as much speed and ferocity as those anywhere else.

The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
rafia.zakaria@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, July 26th, 2023

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