Growing EU divisions are laid bare by latest migrant arrivals

Growing EU divisions are laid bare by latest migrant arrivals

A still image from a video footage shows migrants sitting on board of a migrant rescue boat "Alex", after the vessel docked at the port of Lampedusa in defiance of a ban on entering Italian waters, in Lampedusa, Italy, on July 6, 2019. (REUTERS TV)

Defying the strict instructions of the Italian government, a second boat carrying about 40 refugees docked in the port of Lampedusa in Sicily on Sunday, just a couple of days after another boat carrying a similar number did the same thing.
Both the boats had been stranded in Italian waters outside Lampedusa harbor, after it was closed to them by Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and interior minister, who is also the leader of the far-right Northern League Party, a member of the odd-couple coalition with leftist populists.
The captains of both boats, which are operated by NGOs working to improve the conditions of African migrants stranded in Libya and rescue any found in unsafe vessels in the Mediterranean, said that they had to disobey the order of the Italian government not to dock because the onboard conditions had become unbearable due to a lack of food and water.
The French government criticized Italy for “acting hysterically and failing to live up to its duties toward migrants.” The German interior minister wrote to his Italian counterpart, asking Salvini to rethink his anti-migrant policy and making it clear that the EU could not stand by and watch migrants stuck at sea because they cannot find a port at which to dock.
Both incidents, and the reactions of the two EU heavyweights, have put the focus again on the controversial issue of migration and the experiences of countries such as Italy and Greece, and to a lesser extent, Spain, in the face of a continued influx of migrants.
The EU is bitterly divided on how to handle migration, with the absence of a common policy that would be acceptable to all the 28 members. While some central-European nations, such as Hungary and Poland, have governments that are stridently anti-migrant and have closed their borders to refugees, despite criticism from other member states, Western nations generally have a more tolerant attitude toward the issue.
However, the Italians and the Greeks feel that the rest of the community has abandoned them — and they are not completely off the mark in this.
Italy’s ties with France have been rocked frequently over the past few years over the issue of refugees. Even though France wants Italy to open its doors to refugees, it has sealed its own border with Italy, in flagrant violation of EU policies and the Schengen treaty that calls for a borderless Europe. Italian and French police have frequently clashed at the border as the French push back migrants trying to enter France. There have also been incidents in which migrants desperate enough to attempt to enter France through dangerous Alpine routes have died doing so.

The EU needs to develop a coherent policy that not only takes care of the EU’s own political and social concerns, but also does not turn a blind eye to the plight and imminent danger that most migrants face before they decide to abandon their homes.

Ranvir Nayar

To the consternation of the Italians, even the Germans have made a complete U-turn on the issue of refugees since 2015, when Chancellor Angela Merkel opened the borders of the country and allowed nearly 1.5 million refugees to enter, leading to a severe backlash in German society and the rise of nationalist and populist parties. Many blame Merkel’s open-door policy for the rise of the ultranationalist AfD (Alternative for Germany) party, which is now one of the five biggest parties in the German Parliament. It also has members in all 16 regional parliaments in the German states.
The refugee policy is also blamed for the decline in popularity of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union party, which has struggled to maintain its hold over the federal government and took several months to form a coalition after the most recent elections two years ago. The French government is in a similar boat; during this year’s European Parliament elections, the extreme right-wing Nationalist Party of Marine Le Pen emerged as the biggest winner, ahead of President Emmanuel Macron’s Liberal Party.
With the Franco-German engine that drives most of EU policy in limbo over migrant policy, and opposition to admitting refugees on the rise across many other member states, migration promises to remain at the top of the list of political and societal issues here, even though the number of migrants entering the EU is nowhere near the highs reached between 2014 and 2016, most notably due to the end of the war in Syria and the defeat of Daesh.
Unfortunately for the EU — and the refugees — there are other causes and other wars that ensure the flow of migrants will continue. Growing conflicts and civil wars in several western and central-African nations, including Sudan, Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo and even Ethiopia, have driven thousands of civilians to attempt to flee to the safety of European coasts, even with the grave risk of their leaky boats capsizing in the Mediterranean.
So far, the EU has managed to keep a large number of potential arrivals at bay in Libya. However, this has been sharply criticized by human rights groups as “double-speak” and violations of basic human rights and even of the EU’s own constitution. With the renewal of the conflict in Libya, the crisis surrounding the EU’s “outsourced refugee camps” in the country is likely to provoke yet another mass movement of humanity across the Mediterranean Sea.
The refugee crisis could also be further fueled by climate change and global warming, as heavy floods or severe drought drive thousands from farms and villages across Africa to seek the promise of safety and prosperity that Europe represents for most refugees.
The EU needs to develop a coherent policy that not only takes care of the EU’s own political and social concerns, but also does not turn a blind eye to the plight and imminent danger that most migrants face before they decide to abandon their homes.
Unfortunately, this humane touch seems to be missing on the southern borders of both the US and here in the EU.

Ranvir S. Nayar is the editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India that encompasses publishing, communication and consultation services.

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