A pain pathway

by
24 April 2015

THERE are two responses to pain. One is to ignore it in the hope that it will go away, taking measures only when it becomes serious and persistent. The other is to tackle it early: there is physiological evidence that untreated pain encourages the body to create "pain pathways", increasing sensitivity and leading to chronic symptoms. There is now a pain pathway in the Mediterranean region, as African migrants attempt the hazardous journey to economic security in Europe. The problem began decades ago - indeed, there has been traffic across the Mediterranean for centuries - but in recent years the trickle has been allowed to develop into a flood. And, as with any mass migration, predators have established themselves along the route.

European politicians admitted that there was no easy answer this week, prompted by the horrendous loss of life that took the toll of known deaths since the start of the year to more than 1500. None the less, when tackling unplanned immigration, the initial response of a target nation is always to try to secure its borders. And so it proved: the first suggestions were quasi-military, acting against the traffickers who profit from the vulnerability of the migrants, with little thought of their welfare. This is all well and good: it is an evil trade, exploiting the innocent and vulnerable, and should be stopped - although this might not be easy: the heavily armed gangsters are reportedly raking in profits of more than half-a-million pounds a month. But, supposing European navies manage at least to curtail their traffic, one effect will be to leave would-be travellers stranded in hostile and unstable parts of North Africa. The 30 Ethiopian Christians killed in the latest Islamic State video are thought to have been on the way to Europe.

The best answer, clearly, is to dissuade people from starting such a perilous journey in the first place. To acknowledge this, however, brings the European nations face to face with a host of difficult issues in faraway places. Many of the migrants are fleeing instability or want, one often caused by the other, so that the separation and danger for the young men who, typically, attempt this journey seem preferable to the plight that their families can expect without the support that they go off to seek. Many have already suffered displacement from their homes. European countries contribute consistently to combating the effects of flood and famine, but the complexity of political instability in the sub-Saharan region triggers a post-colonial horror of involvement. Yet there is much that might be done, given the political will and a commitment to the overseas-aid budget (the focus of disgraceful attacks during the electoral season). Those who dismiss the migrants as people on the make - thus denying people in the developing world exactly the sort of aspiration they have themselves - may have been temporarily silenced by video of the bodies of drowned children being carried ashore. If the deaths provoke an intelligent and generous response, some good at least will have come out of the pain.

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