Europe needs a long-term plan for refugees
The summer of 2018 has been unseasonably hot in Europe. The only thing hotter than the weather was the debate over refugees. Italy’s new interior minister, the right-wing League leader Matteo Salvini, never tires of warning Italians about hordes of African immigrants, conveniently forgetting that Mediterranean migration to Italy has declined by about 80 percent in the past year.
In Germany, the antics of interior minister Horst Seehofer nearly brought down the government. The cause, again, was migration. Seehofer won, in as much as the EU conceded accepting migrants equitably among themselves and setting up processing centers for migrants in North Africa — except no North African nation seems enthusiastic about such centers, and the Egyptian government rejected them outright.
Internally, Seehofer plans to establish rapid processing centers where immigrants can be quickly assessed, and either accommodated or extradited. So far only his native Bavaria and possibly the Saarland have bought into the concept. Meanwhile Germany sends people back to places such as Afghanistan, which it labels safe.
The “Turkey deal” is well known: It accepted about three million refugees after signing a contract with the EU under which Turkey closed access to Europe for refugees in return for six billion euros. The Greek and Balkans route has thus all but closed.
Italy has become a more difficult destination for refugees thanks to Salvini. Malta and Cyprus have been closed for a long time. The new center-left Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez has become the only one with a heart for Mediterranean migrants. He allowed the refugee ship Aquarius to dock in Valencia after a weeks-long summer odyssey in the central and western Mediterranean. Consequently, the number of migrants in Spain has shot up.
The only constructive approach to a long-term solution is economic assistance and capacity building in North Africa and throughout the continent.
Meanwhile the governments of Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic have a hard-line stance on migration. More liberal governments in France, Holland, Denmark and Sweden are concerned about their right-wing opposition parties and how they will fare in the next election.
What has happened? Europeans are generally nice people who believe in democracy, human rights and fairness. Nevertheless, the summer of 2015, when more than a million migrants reached the shores of the northern Mediterranean, spooked many politicians and ordinary citizens alike.
What we have seen since then are double standards. Governments pillory Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for violations in human rights, undemocratic behavior and locking up journalists; at the same time, they are only too happy to come to an agreement on migration, and even receive him on a state visit.
Meanwhile Libya is all but a failed state. There has been heartbreaking CNN reporting of the conditions in migrant camps and outright slavery there. The human rights violations are so flagrant that the last thing anyone should accept is for migrants to be sent back into the hands of the Libyan authorities, but that is exactly what is taking place. The controversy over the refugee ship Open Arms proved as much. Europeans are also working with the Libyan authorities and coast guard. Indeed, the new Italian government is training the coast guard and buying them new patrol boats. Similar “technical assistance” is provided to Mali and other countries by various European countries, and even by the EU.
The summer may be hot, but the climate for refugees and migrants is becoming ever colder and harsher across the continent. Humanitarian NGOs who try to save stranded refugees from certain death on the high seas are becoming more and more constrained by the governments of Malta, Italy and the like. Many ships have been confiscated in the port of Valetta, as are aircraft on the country’s runways.
The only constructive approach to a long-term solution is economic assistance and capacity building in North Africa and throughout the continent. The EU and Germany are leading those efforts. However, such developmental programs have a long-term horizon; don’t expect results before the middle or end of the next decade.
In the meantime, untold human suffering continues, and the situation is getting worse instead of better. Deaths in the Mediterranean have almost reached 2015 levels, despite a decline of nearly 90 percent in the number of people trying to cross.
To repeat, Europeans are essentially decent people with strong core values. It is important to remind them of these aspirations. Economic aid and technical assistance are the way forward, because they may be able to forge more conducive living conditions for potential migrants. As long as people have to flee conflict, or lack all economic perspective, they will attempt to go north by all means possible. Long-term development projects demand patience from everyone.
In the meantime, people are what they believe in. There will be repercussions in the psyche and self-identity of a nation if its deeds diverge from its values for too long a time.
- Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert.