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Med-crossing migrants seek refuge in Europe

An EU-wide policy on refugees, though unpopular, is desperately needed

May 14, 2015 2:00AM ET

In antiquity, the small Sicilian island of Lampedusa was used as a fishing and trade base by Romans and Arabs alike. Today the island is a symbol of the European Union’s failure to take responsibility for its policies.

Seventy miles east of Tunisia, Lampedusa is one of the main gateways into Europe for migrants and asylum seekers. Thousands of desperate refugees arrive on its shores, as well as on the southern Italian and Greek coasts, hoping for a better life in Europe. There are many others waiting in North Africa to escape to the wealthy West by crossing the Mediterranean.

In response to a large number of migrants drowning on the journey to Europe, the EU Commission on Wednesday suggested some reforms to its immigration policies — notably, adding migrant quotas for every member state.

But this proposal will undoubtedly provoke strong opposition by Eastern European leaders, especially the nationalist Hungarian President Viktor Orbán, as well as in Western Europe, where David Cameron’s government will likely fight to reject any rules imposed by  the EU in order to appease the UK’s far-right constituents. Historically, a shared EU immigration policy and asylum system has faced resistance by a number of member states concerned with the Europeanization of sovereign national powers, unemployment and the anxieties of their electorates. Despite the severity of the ongoing crisis, such a policy is unlikely to win support anytime soon. 

Budget interests

The primary reason for this resistance is economic: State budgets have been squeezed since the financial crisis, and aid for immigrants isn’t necessarily popular. The need to decrease public spending forced Italy to roll back the expensive Mare Nostrum program, its large-scale sea-rescue operation. It was replaced by the smaller EU Triton program, which proved mostly ineffective. Up until the recent crises at sea and the additional funding provided to alleviate them, the EU plan was implicitly in line with its budget-only interests and the sociopolitical mood across European nations.

Some countries would prefer it if full responsibility for these migrants fell on the frail shoulders of Greece and Italy (as well as on the nations that take migrants on a voluntary basis, such as Germany and France). Solidarity, once fundamental in rebuilding European unity after 1945, has become an unfashionable, almost useless, ideal.

Moreover, the belief that migrants should be prevented from leaving Africa in the first place is quickly becoming widely accepted. This ideological messages has been championed in past months by the right-wing anti-EU U.K. Independence Party and its counterparts across the continent, such as the Italy’s Northern League, the French National Front, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom and the Danish People’s Party. Right-leaning British newspapers started claiming that the U.K. was among the nations with the most asylum seekers in 2014 (which is true, with about 14,000, though Germany accepted more than 47,000). And it extends beyond the crisis in the Mediterranean: To please its Euroskeptic rightist MPs, the British leadership now wants to negotiate with the EU a limit to the number of other European citizens entering the U.K.

People from Lampedusa, volunteers, nonprofit organizations, doctors and Italy’s coast guard are the only real heroes in this story.

On the other side of Europe, Orbán is an even more radical pillar of right-wing anti-immigration policies. Known for his retrograde approach toward democracy and press freedom, he suggested that EU nations should “defend their borders” using military force.

The gains by right-leaning Euroskeptic parties in the May 2014 EU elections contributed to this anti-immigrant backlash. Far-right stances gain currency in times of high unemployment and economic downturn. Ethnic and religious debates are also, from time to time, intense, and they are another barrier to helping these immigrants, many of them from the Muslim world. Arrayed against them are Europeans organizing rallies in black shirts and anti-Islam parades, while some others more politely suggest closing borders because of the alleged failure of multiculturalism and the EU.

This is why far-right parties such as the French Front National call for “stopping migrants in Italy” in order not to reach France and politicians such as the U.K. Independence Party’s Nigel Farage suggest hosting merely “some Christian refugees from Syria.”

Social landscapes

Europe is not a monoethnic community. Migrations have irreversibly reshaped its social landscape over the centuries: The Romans roamed all over the continent, the Saxons moved to Britain, the Germanic Lombards took northern Italy, the Normans ruled Sicily, the Ottomans controlled much of the eastern and southern Mediterranean, and there was even a caliphate in Iberia. And yet today there are people hoping in vain to turn back the clock, believing that there are no solutions other than sending back all migrant vessels full. Mare Nostrum was, for them, a failure mostly because it was unable to prevent these arrivals.

There is no way to describe this stance other than to call it what it is: bigotry. It ignores that integration is, in fact, possible. Some little towns in Southern Italy have been repopulated with a positive contribution to local economies, thanks to refugees.

In addition, the West’s anti-immigration stance overlooks its involvement in the conflicts and exploitations that are driving so many to flee their countries across the Mediterranean.

The EU needs to take its share of refugees, as do peaceful nations all around the world, whether their borders are near or far. But EU nations should not be the only ones to bear the brunt of rescuing people at sea, and Italy and Greece, already strapped for cash, should not go into debt in the process of helping out.

Until the international community steps in, the reality is that people from Lampedusa, volunteers, nonprofit organizations, doctors and Italy’s coast guard are the only real heroes in this story. They, at least, still believe that migrants are human beings worth saving. 

Andrea Mammone is a historian of modern Europe at Royal Holloway, University of London. His book on transnational neofascism is forthcoming in July from Cambridge University Press. His writing has appeared in The International Herald Tribune, The Independent, Foreign Affairs, The Guardian, Reuters, The New York Times and The New Statesman.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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