The starfish conundrum

When I wrote the starfish story into The Golden Tide I was thinking of a friend who raises funds to support a lost cause charity in rural Madagascar. Now I see the same story has been adopted by some of the rush of volunteers who have gone to the Greek island of Lesvos to help the migrants who are flooding onto the island from Turkey.

Pity for the migrants is matched by pity for the poor Greek islanders which have to bear the brunt of this seemingly unstoppable human tide. But start this BBC podcast about six minutes in to get a different perspective on the effect on the island economy. The migrant business has effectively extended the tourist season, not because the migrants spend so much, although a lot of them can pay for hotels and taxis and food, but by sucking in people who are desperate to help. The Hotel Panselinos is still busy, home to volunteers when it would otherwise be shut for the winter. Tavernas are throbbing, as volunteers not only have to eat, they also have to exchange stories of how much they are helping others, and a carafe of wine or two is a great aid to self-justification. The car hire company has had to ship in extra cars. It’s not a bonanza for the good people of Lesvos, but it is the beginning of an economy built around the migrant flow which is rolling out across Europe.

The latest to benefit are the owners of cruise ships and ferries. Governments are scuffling to find places to house migrants, and floating solutions offer many benefits. If governments can hire in ships to house the migrants it keeps them off the streets, out of the school gymnasiums and, in most ports, safely out of sight of locals who might be worrying about the impact of this influx on their own social housing. And of course governments will pay good money to charter these ships.

The downside of this proposition is that there are not enough cruise ships standing empty to satisfy demand. All modern ships are booked a year in advance, especially since the northern European economies are doing rather well, thank you, which is the cause of the migration in the first place.

Which takes us back to Greece. Greek ports are blocked out with ferries past their prime, most of which are idle at this time of year. Solution and problem meet neatly to solve a series of other issues. The German government precipitated this massive flow by promising an open door. So now they should charter all the Greek ferries, send them to the Turkish port closest to Lesvos, load up all the migrants, and ship them direct to Hamburg. That spares the migrants the danger of the open boat sea crossing to Lesvos. It saves them the chaos of trying to cross the Balkans on foot. It spares us seeing Iranians sewing their mouths up to go on hunger strike at closed borders. It takes the migrants where they want to go directly, and they arrive with their own accommodation.

Those wanting to help starfish will have to go to Hamburg rather than Lesvos, of course, but given the higher cost of wine and moussaka there we may see a reduction in the flow of volunteers anyway. And Lesvos? They will close the hotels and tavernas as they do every winter, ship the extra hire cars back to Athens, clean up the mountains of rubbish generated by migrants and helpers alike and breathe a sigh of relief.

As will the rest of us who are sitting on the sidelines wrestling with the starfish conundrum. Should we be helping or not and will well-meaning help do more harm than good?


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