In an interconnected world, the tragedy of immigrants has captured the imagination of all. Whether they are African immigrants, who arrive in Europe for economic reasons, or others fleeing conflicts, people have differing points of view about the crisis. The main arguments put forward, which often clash with each other, illustrate the dichotomy.
The first one is of ethical order: A minimum sense of humanity obliges us to come to the aid of displaced people, whatever the motive behind their movement — political or economic. Freedom fighters, emaciated men, women and children who leave their country because of unacceptable living conditions or war deserve respect. This is complemented by another set of arguments: To rescue someone at sea is not only a moral obligation of a nation, but a legal one too — according to international law.
However, there is another growing section of people, mostly populists in several European countries, some of them in power, who call for the refusal to allow immigrants in (it may be dubbed as racist refusal). They surmise: Why should these flows of Africans, who will neither ever assimilate nor adhere to local standards, be welcome? Uncontrolled immigration is paving the way for populism, they contend. Listen to the Italian Minister of Interior Matteo Salvini’s speeches. They are so coarse that they make French right-wing leader Marine Le Pen sound like a saint. The thing with populists is that while they raise good questions, they often arrive at the wrong answers.
Some leaders also play on the fears that migrants “endanger Europe”: Thereby calling into question the Dublin Agreement (which states that a country where a refugee arrives first is responsible for handling his case), or the Schengen Agreement (allowing for free movement within the member-states, which means that once in Europe, a refugee can travel from one country to another). That is why some countries have threatened to close their borders, sending back the refugees to the prior host country, which is clearly not a long-term solution.
A final argument, a smart one although slightly utopian, is to acknowledge that the crisis should be tackled upstream, that is in Africa itself. There is a proposal that certain countries in Africa must be given the means to create conditions so that people don’t flee their communities. There is a problem to this argument: It may take another 20 years to work. In the meantime, local ‘hotspots’ (or processing centres) in those countries could manage the situation. The only problem is that no Northern African country is fine with the idea, with Algeria having already said ‘no’. Also, the way people are treated in some Libyan camps raises reasonable fears; and possibly ‘volunteering’ European countries (Italy, Spain, Greece, France ...) may need not rush into a quick solution.
Is the paroxysmal cacophony resulting from these arguments a real threat? Actually, mass immigration is not a new issue and the future of Europe is not at stake because some countries remind Eurocrats in Brussels that states have sovereign powers. A reasonable and pragmatic approach could already bring in solutions — provided everybody stops cheating.
First, one should stop admitting that one country — simply because of its geographical situation — should alone bear the impact of mass migration. It is obviously unfair, but also denotes a rare hypocrisy, especially when hiding behind European rules that were written in a different context. To say it clearly, Italy was left alone in the handling of the issue, and it is not the least of the European scandals.
Second, the European legal framework, notably written for political asylum, may not exactly suit the present migration crisis, some of which is economic in character. The framework can be re-written, which will take time. Meanwhile, the only practical behaviour is to waive the rules temporarily and work out an agreement between those countries that are in the front-line — Italy, Spain and Greece — with the support of Malta, France and Germany. There is no need to waste time with Eastern European countries that refuse solidarity — there will be other occasions to resume dialogue with them.
Lastly, efforts must be strengthened to prevent refugees from leaving Africa by helping the countries concerned right now. Europe must provide Libya and Tunisia the reinforced means to stop unscrupulous smugglers and bolster their border controls. Those who succeed in arriving on European shores require proper screening, handling with dignity and eventually processing them back home — which is a better option than being returned to their departure point immediately after being rescued at sea. Firmness doesn’t always match with sentimentality, but it is sometimes important for human dignity.
Luc Debieuvre is a French essayist and a lecturer at IRIS (Institut de Relations Internationales et Strategiques) and the ‘FACO’ Law University of Paris.