To some in Europe, the past two weeks may have echoed the agitation and confusion of 2015, when more than a million refugees and migrants arrived on the continent’s shores. Again, migrants have become a front-page topic from Rome to Berlin after Italy’s populist government shut its ports to them, recalling the Balkan and central European countries that closed their borders in 2015 and 2016.
But this time, Europe isn’t dealing with an influx of millions. Instead, Europeans are fiercely debating over about 40,000 migrant arrivals in 2019 in a bloc of more than 500 million.
Even though the number of migrants crossing the Mediterranean Sea has dropped significantly since 2015, Europe’s right-wingers and liberals are once again sounding alarms — although in very different ways. One side wants to preserve Europe as the fortress it has become, fenced off by the Mediterranean Sea and deals with Turkey, Morocco, and Libya, not to mention actual fences. The other side is asking: At what ethical price?
Europe’s resurgent migration debate has largely been triggered by Italy’s populist government and far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who has banned private rescue ships with migrants aboard from entering Italian ports and waters. The operations, Italy’s hardliners and other critics say, provide incentives for migrants to risk the treacherous sea journey to Europe. Supporters of those missions argue that Europe has a moral responsibility to rescue the migrants, many of whom have escaped conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa that include ethnic warfare and persecution.
The European Union has effectively sided with the critics in recent years, scaling back governmental rescue programs. Private groups have tried to fill the void, but have faced growing resistance, too.
When German Capt. Carola Rackete ignored Italy’s orders to stay away from its waters in late June and steered her Sea-Watch 3 vessel into the port of Lampedusa, she was swiftly arrested by Italian authorities.
To Rackete’s supporters, her subsequent release barely offered much consolation, as more showdowns appear likely. Italy’s populists are unlikely to give in to their foreign and domestic critics, as their recent rows with private rescue NGOs have allowed them to again rally their voters behind an issue that otherwise would have largely disappeared from public consciousness.
Unlike Salvini and his allies are suggesting, there is no actual migrant crisis in Italy. Of the very few migrants who still arrive, many are transferred to other E.U. member states, where support for private sea rescue groups has remained higher.
In Germany, for instance, thousands took to the streets in several cities last weekend to express support for the rescue missions. But protesters’ anger was also directed at their own government and the European Union in a broader sense.
Many supporters of private sea rescue groups see the woes of the past two weeks as symptomatic of a flawed E.U. migration strategy in North Africa and the Mediterranean, with a deadly fallout that can no longer be ignored. At the Centre of their anger is an E.U.-backed deal with the Libyan government, struck in 2017. In return for preventing North African migrants from being able to embark on or complete the sea route to Europe, the Libyan coast guard was promised partial funding and training. From the beginning, human rights groups were stunned by the move and warned that Europe was backing authorities in a war-torn country.
Their worst-case scenarios soon appeared to be justified. When Human Rights Watch visited several migration centers last summer, the organisation found “inhumane conditions that included severe overcrowding, unsanitary conditions, poor quality food and water that has led to malnutrition, lack of adequate health care, and disturbing accounts of violence by guards, including beatings, whippings, and use of electric shocks.”
On top of alleged mistreatment, migrants have since early April also been trapped in a conflict between the UN-backed Libyan government’s aligned militias and Libyan commander Khalifa Hifter. Last Tuesday, at least 53 migrants were killed when an air strike destroyed parts of a detention camp in a Tripoli enclave.
Critics of the E.U. strategy in Libya say the bloc bears some responsibility for their deaths. Under the E.U.-backed arrangement, more than 10,000 migrants have been returned to the controversial detention centers in Libya after they unsuccessfully tried to cross the Mediterranean, my colleague Sudarsan Raghavan reported from Tripoli. Many more migrants never made it to the coastline.
“What horrible thing has to happen next before these people who remain locked in cells, without any ability to flee from the fighting, are evacuated out of the country to safety?” asked Craig Kenzie, the Tripoli project coordinator for Medecins Sans Frontieres.
The E.U. has defended its strategy, saying that its policy has stopped migrants from drowning in the Mediterranean. But it has not stopped all from coming — and those who still risk the journey are now more likely to die than before. The estimated death rate among migrants trying to reach Italy or Malta stands at 10 per cent, according to the International Organization for Migration, which is almost two times higher than it was a year ago during the same period. As conditions in Libya are deteriorating, more migrants may risk crossing under conditions that have deliberately been made more dangerous with E.U. backing.
That’s why some critics of Europe’s immigration policies are comparing the E.U. migration approach to President Trump’s efforts to keep South American migrants out of the United States. “It’s easy to criticise Washington’s migration policies as inhumane,” German magazine Der Spiegel’s Mathieu von Rohr wrote in a recent editorial, “but the approach taken by the European Union is even more outrageous. Politicians in the EU outsource the horrors and wash their hands of any guilt.”
For Europeans opposed to such practices, finding a more humane solution might turn out to be even more difficult than for Democrats in the United States. While Democrats theoretically have to elect only one president, liberal Europeans are fighting 28 battles in 28 separate E.U. member states. But some leaders don’t think that’s enough of an excuse.
“Saving human lives is a duty and can never be an offence or a crime; not to save them, on the contrary, is one,” Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn wrote.
— Washington Post
Rick Noack is a noted columnist who specialises in European politics. He is an Arthur F. Burns Fellow.