The Coastal History Blog 31: “The Intolerant Coast”

The Syrian refugee crisis has brought forth a broad humanitarian response and also some thoughtful pieces from historians. On the “refugee or migrant” question, Le Monde interviewed Gérard Noiriel in a conversation that harked back all the way to the sixteenth century.[1] In the Guardian, Mary Beard commented on how the Roman Empire handled borders and migration. In this blog post, Keith David Watenpaugh removed his historian hat for a moment and discussed his personal experience with falling overboard at sea and waiting for rescue.[2]

My Jewish grandfather, while technically not a refugee, still had to come to America the long way. Starting in Latvia, in order to reach his brother in Los Angeles he had to travel via Shanghai. Upon arrival in California, he was shunted off to quarantine because he had an infected scalp. When he made it through processing, he was greeted by a Jewish charity that dispensed soup at no charge to newcomers. He was so excited and uplifted by the soup that he recounted the story in later years and left that charity money in his will.

With that in mind, it’s hard for me to disagree with Fatima Kurdi, the aunt of the toddler found drowned, when she says: “Save those refugees. Find a solution. Make it happen.” If the public reaction to the photograph of Alan Kurdi really heralds a new, less defensive attitude toward coastlines and waterborne migrants, though, I have to say that will be a sharp change from the regime that has prevailed in my lifetime. It has been common to imagine the coast in more anxious, not to say more apocalyptic, terms.

I started reading newspapers around the time of the Mariel Boatlift, in which more than 100,000 Cubans made their way to Florida in small, unsafe craft over a six-month period. The Cold War was still very much at the forefront of everyone’s attention during the Carter Administration, and the refugees’ willingness to risk their lives to flee the Castro regime might seem to have offered an easy theme for propaganda, but US authorities were alarmed by the migrants nonetheless. Indeed, despite the very fresh memory of the Vietnam War, when President Carter announced his decision to double the number of Indochinese refugees admitted to the US to 186,000 per year, only 19% of the public supported that decision.[3]

Houari Boumédiènne, the second President of Algeria, declared: “No quantity of atomic bombs could stem the tide of billions… who will someday leave the poor southern part of the world to erupt into the relatively accessible spaces of the rich northern hemisphere looking for survival.”[4] An academic appraisal from 2002 noted, however, that most irregular migrants were simply moving from one developing nation to another, and I suspect that this figure would still hold true today.[5] In practice, it takes more than poverty to motivate large numbers to undertake the truly hazardous waterborne journeys. It is usually war or dictatorship that serves as the last straw. Of course, dictatorships and wars are not in short supply, and climate change may soon stimulate more movement than both of those combined.

Gog and Magog

If you were asked to name the most influential maritime-themed novel of the last 50 years, you might mention the Aubrey-Maturin series or The Hunt for Red October, but it is Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints (1973) that elicited a cover story in the Atlantic Monthly. It’s the tale of a messianic religious movement that originates on the banks of the Ganges and inspires its followers to hijack a motley assortment of leaky, half-derelict merchant vessels. This “Last Chance Armada” would sail, very slowly, to Europe, rejecting all aid and half-measures along the way. The fleet of 100 ships—“an antiworld,” in Raspail’s words, “coming in the flesh to knock, at long last, on the gates of abundance”[6]—meets with little opposition and the project is even encouraged by French leftists, philosophers, and talk radio celebrities. One such supporter, who happens to be in Calcutta during the first stirrings of the movement, remarks: “Passports, countries, religions, ideals, races, borders, oceans… What bloody rubbish!”[7] He is the first victim of the migrants, trodden to death under their stampeding feet as they embark.[8]

Raspail has a solution in mind throughout, tersely expressed by a French admiral in the words “Boom… Boom…. Boom.”[9] The French government, however, is paralyzed by the fear of appearing less than humane, or in some way discriminatory. Doubt abounds, even on the subject of what to call the flotilla: “The enemy? The horde? The invasion? The Third World on the march?” They settle on “unprecedented incursion.”[10] Instructed to fire upon the refugee boats, French sailors politely mutiny. The French naval officer in command describes it as “a psychological test, unlike anything before in all our naval history… Either we open our doors to these people and take them in. Or we torpedo every one of their boats, at night, when it’s too dark to see their faces as we kill them.”[11] Called up to defend the south, army reservists mostly ignore the summons. The President of France writes a speech in which he instructs the armed forces to mow down the new arrivals, but loses his nerve at the last minute.

In Raspail’s view, the final proof of the West’s decadence is that it is too consumed by self-doubt and self-loathing to resist its own inundation. The will to fight has been sapped, perhaps above all, by “Vatican III” and its new Brazilian Pope who has sold all his rich furnishings to help the poor. The “camp of the saints” term itself comes from a passage in the Book of Revelation in which a small group of God’s elect is besieged by the armies of Gog and Magog, “the number of whom is as the sand of the sea.”[12] Not surprisingly, a google search about this novel and its reception will quickly lead you down the rabbit hole of white supremacist websites.

We aren’t likely to see a film version of Camp of the Saints any time soon. Yet the undead from the Brad Pitt movie World War Z have an uncanny similarity to Raspail’s refugee menace, not least in their ability to cheerfully defy the laws of physics and common sense. In one scene, the zombies seethe and surge around corners like a flash flood; in another, they plummet like lead weights, while in the most notorious scene of the film—when they confront an Israeli border wall that looks as if it was built to keep out dinosaurs rather than human beingsthey loft skyward like a mound of hot buttered popcorn brimming over the pot’s edge.

Raspail would have had no trouble recognizing these explosive zombie hordes. Here, in fact, is how he describes what the Last Chance Armada looked like:

“If the figures could be believed… then the decks and holds must be piled high with layer upon layer of human bodies, clustered in heaps around smoke-stacks and gangways, with the dead underneath supporting the living, like one of those columns of ants on the march, teeming with life on top, exposed to view, and below, a kind of ant-paved path, with millions of trampled cadavers.[13]”

I’ve seen calls on Twitter for new novels of the Anthropocene to raise our consciousness and ready us for the ecological battles to come next, but it would seem that the apocalyptic mass migration genre is already up and running. The American Conservative ran a blog post last week: “It’s Jean Raspail’s World Now.”

Not with a bang but a whimper

Raspail was too angry to be the next Evelyn Waugh, but now and then Camp of the Saints takes a break from incinerating its leftist straw men and actually offers some mordant political satire. A French cabinet meeting features a proposal to outsource the problem to the UN and “send out helicopters once in a while to feed the people and take care of the ships.” This scheme grows more and more elaborate (pretty soon it’s an autonomous Floating Republic of the High Seas with honorary UN membership), but the bottom line is that for the price of “a couple of food packages… and some aspirin from World Health” the problem can be contained, hived off for good without any political risk. “It’s hardly a new idea,” the official adds. “Remember Palestine?”[14]

Of the many quotable or “prophetic” passages in Camp of the Saints, this one is perhaps the most realistic, and the most chilling. In recent years, one version or another of these techniques have been implemented around the world, a “policy toolbox” fenced about with rows of splendid Orwellian euphemisms[15]:

  • the externalization of migration management
  • “remote control” (managing migration at its source)
  • border preclearance
  • migration route initiatives
  • smart border technologies
  • the “security turn” in migration policy
  • offshore interdiction
  • offshore detention

As I mentioned in my blog post on offshoring, the field of Island Studies has been well ahead of the pack in addressing these new forms of governmentality. In Australia’s “Pacific Solution,” migrants are “neither at home nor arrived, not able to become refugees or asylum seekers because of their location at a distance from sovereign territory.”[16] Have the Syrian refugees already bypassed or transcended this sort of policy response? Things are moving so quickly that even a blog post risks falling behind events, but this morning’s (September 14) papers report plans for “the internment of ‘irregular migrants,’ the creation of large new refugee camps in Italy and Greece and longer-term aims for the funding and building of refugee camps outside the EU” while other headlines warn that refugees may find themselves trapped in “limbo” between jurisdictions.

Even if the international community steers clear of militarized or quarantine-oriented solutions, the risk remains that fatigue will set in. Consider this piece: “UN agencies ‘broke and failing’ in face of ever-growing refugee crisis.” One sentence buried in the text stood out for me, as someone who remembers when the genocide in Darfur made headlines and attracted the attention of movie stars and commentators: “Darfuris living in camps in Chad have been warned that their rations may end completely at the end of the year.” This sort of bald, colorless statement lacks the moral drama and philosophical incisiveness of many recent pronouncements on the rights and wrongs of the Syrian crisis, yet it may get closer to the essence of the problem. Surges of refugees test the head and heart of the international community, but perhaps most of all, they test its stamina and attention span.



[1] Sylvia Zappi, “Le <<migrant>>, nouveau visage de l’imaginaire français,” Le Monde, August 26, 2015, accessed September 13, 2015; see also Alexandre Pouchard, “<<Migrant>> ou <<réfugié>>: quelles differences?” Le Monde, August 25, 2015, accessed September 13, 2015.

[2] Keith David Watenpaugh, “Between the Sea and the Problem of Humanity: The Mediterranean’s Refugees and the Humanitarian Reason of Rescue at Sea,” Humanity Journal blog post, accessed September 13, 2015.

[3] Michael S. Teitelbaum, “Right versus Right: Immigration and Refugee Policy in the United States,” Foreign Affairs 59, no. 1 (Fall 1980), 21-59, quoted page 21.

[4] Quoted in Teitelbaum, “Right,” 45-46.

[5] Philip Martin and Jonas Widgren, “International Migration: Facing the Challenge,” Population Bulletin 57, no. 1 (March 2002), 3-40.

[6] Jean Raspail, The Camp of the Saints, trans. Norman Shapiro (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975), 2.

[7] Raspail, Camp, 28.

[8] Raspail, Camp, 41.

[9] Raspail, Camp, 64.

[10] Raspail, Camp, 5.

[11] Raspail, Camp, 157, 159.

[12] Revelation 20:7-10.

[13] Raspail, Saints, 2.

[14] Raspail, Saints, 63.

[15] These can be found in Ruben Zaiotti, “Mapping Remote Control: the Externalization of Migration Management in the 21st century,” , accessed September 14, 2015.

[16] M. Giannacopoulos, M. Marmo and W. de Lint, “Irregular Migration: Emerging Regimes of Power and the Disappearing Human,” Griffith Law Review 22:3 (2013), 559-570, quoted page 563.

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