May 20, 2015, by Lindsay Brooke

The Mediterranean crisis – is not like the slave trade.

An open letter signed by more than 250 academics and experts on slavery and migration from around the globe, has condemned the EU’s efforts to prevent migrants from leaving the North African coast saying this does not constitute a noble stand against the evil of slavery, or even against ‘trafficking’. In fact, they say, the measures currently being employed lead to the death of peaceable women, men and children, including victims of torture, and those fleeing persecution and war.

Their letter, which includes the signatures of many of the world’s most distinguished scholars in these fields, has been published today in Open Democracy. It demands that Europe’s political leaders stop abusing the history of transatlantic slavery in order to legitimise military and deterrent actions against migrants. It calls for the resettlement of many more refugees within Europe, and for the dismantling of the barriers to movement that have been put in the way of all but the most wealthy.

Signatories include five University of Nottingham academics: Julia O’Connell Davidson, Professor of Sociology; Zoe Trodd, Professor of American LiteratureStephen Hodkinson, Director of the Institute for the Study of Slavery and Professor of Ancient History; Dr Samuel Okyere whose research interests are broadly linked to human rights and social justice issues and John Holmwood, Professor of Sociology.

They say the leaders of the European Union have vowed to “identify, capture and destroy” the vessels of those who arrange for migrants to make the perilous Mediterranean crossing from Libya. They justify their plans by describing the situation as a modern slave trade. Journalists too have used the terms ‘smuggling’ and ‘trafficking’ interchangeably in reporting on migrant deaths in the Mediterranean, and made comparisons with slavery.

They argue that what is happening in the Mediterranean today does not even remotely resemble the transatlantic slave trade.

Enslaved Africans, they say, did not want to move. They were held in dungeons before being shackled and loaded onto ships. They had to be prevented from choosing suicide over forcible transportation. That transportation led to a single and utterly appalling outcome – slavery. Today, those embarking on the journey to Europe want to move. If they were allowed to take a safer route to Europe, they would do so. It’s true that would-be migrants are sometimes held in terrifying conditions in Libya, but not in dungeons as a precursor to being forcibly shipped as slaves. Rather, many are held in immigration detention centres, partly funded by the EU, where both adults and children are at risk of violence, including whippings, beatings and torture. And the outcome for those who make it onto boats is uncertain. Some die en-route, some survive only to be exploited and abused at the point of destination. But others who survive secure at least a chance of accessing rights, protection, family reunion, education, work, freedom from persecution, and so on.

Commenting on the letter:

Professor O’Connell Davidson said: “EU leaders, including David Cameron, talk as though using force to destroy boats and shut down routes out of Libya is part of a noble effort to prevent migrants from falling victim to a slave trade. This letter, signed by many of the world’s leading slavery historians and migration scholars refutes that. There is absolutely no comparison between the transatlantic slave trade and what is happening on the North African coast today. People who make the Mediterranean crossing urgently need and want to move. They’re prevented from using safe modes of travel by EU immigration and asylum policy, not by ‘slavers’ or ‘traffickers’. There’s nothing noble about leaving people, many of whom are fleeing torture or war, with a choice between the perilous sea crossing or the perils of remaining stuck in Libya. Our government’s response to the crisis in the Mediterranean is driven only by the desire to prevent migrants from reaching the EU, and that’s a policy that is killing adults and children, not saving lives or freeing slaves. It’s Katie Hopkins in anti-slavery clothing, and I hope this letter will help to make that clear”.

Professor Trodd said: “There is much we might learn from the antislavery past. Historians, activists and policy-makers have a collective storehouse of laws, definitions, literary devices, images, opinion-building activities and organisational strategies that were useful to earlier antislavery generations, and might be useful for contemporary antislavery in adapted form. The antislavery usable past of the 18th and 19th centuries – the failures, successes, contradictions and unfinished work – offers lessons and legacies, not least the central role of enslaved people in achieving their own liberation. But current invocations of historic slavery and antislavery to justify military action go way beyond reaching for a usable past. They form instead an abuse of the past. If past antislavery movements teach us anything, it is to reject the great lie of history – a lie visible again in the political response to the Mediterranean refugee crisis – that some people are sub-human.”

Professor Hodkinson said: “From a long-term perspective, the current migrations are the latest in a series of historical trans-Mediterranean movements of peoples which have perturbed but also enriched European, African and Asian cultures. In classical antiquity ordinary Greeks migrated in large numbers under economic and political pressures: to Italy, Sicily and North Africa, and to the wealthy civilisations of Egypt and Persia. The resulting diverse interactions and mutual adaptations created a shared Mediterranean material and cultural koine. Later, ordinary Italians migrated both east and south across the Mediterranean on their own initiative in the context of Rome’s developing influence. These migrations were different from the slave trade and occasional efforts by major powers to control them were of the same limited effectiveness as previous and currently-planned measures by the EU. The historical ‘lesson’ is that wealthier nations flourish best when they adapt flexibly and accommodate migrant peoples.”

Dr Okyere said: “I stand with the many history and migration scholars and other academics who have voiced objection to the British government’s and EU leaders’ attempt to use the story of the transatlantic slave trade to sanitize their misguided decision to use military force against the movement of people across the Mediterranean sea from Libya to Europe. I find it incredibly obscene that the suffering of those who were captured and forcibly transported in chains across the Atlantic ocean, without any desire whatsoever to move,  is being compared to and used as pretext to deny virtually all means of escape to those who are today not fleeing from ‘people smugglers’ but are rather looking to escape wars, torture, political persecution or humiliating hardship. The British government and EU leaders have already shuttered all safe passages of movement into their territories for these people, through immigration policies and border militarisation. The only chink in the armour and only passage left to those in need of help has been the perilous boat journeys. Thus, the ill-judged move to drop bombs on boats, under the pretext of saving lives, stopping people smugglers, or even more contrived, fighting a ‘new form of slavery’, lacks credibility. The only humane response to the crises is to grant safe passage to those who are desperately seeking refuge and better livelihoods, thereby reducing their reliance on people smugglers and the needless related deaths that result from the ensuing boat journeys.”

Professor Holmwood said: “One of the factors leading to the abolition of slavery in the nineteenth century was compassion for its victims and humanitarian empathy with their plight. It is a mockery to invoke the anti-slavery movement as an expression of British values and, at the same time, call for military action that turns its face away from the relief of suffering.”

 More information is available from Professor Julia O’Connell Davidson in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at The University of Nottingham on +44 (0)7867 795909, julia.o’; James Brewer Stewart on 001 218 652 2672,;or Lindsay Brooke, Media Relations Manager in the Communications Office at The University of Nottingham, on +44 (0)115 9515751,




Posted in Social Sciences