Egypt has just joined Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Albania in their refusal of a European request to open ‘reception centres’ for refugees and migrants before they make their way to Europe. The European strategy is already in shambles.
These centres were, in fact, at the heart of a European plan, articulated in a recent summit in Brussels, to bring to an end a burgeoning refugee and migrant crisis caused by political and military turmoil in North Africa and the Middle East.
The other facet in the European plan is the establishment of ‘controlled camps’ in mainland Europe itself. But that too does not seem feasible.
Europe is abandoning an older policy in favour of a brutal model that was used by Australia for the last 20 years, one that treated refugees as criminals, placing them in prison-like facilities in neighbouring islands and in Australia itself.
In 2016, then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott warned European leaders of a ‘peaceful invasion’ of refugees unless they adopt his country’s approach to migration control. Advocating the idea of turning refugee boats back, Abbott explained: “Effective border protection is not for the squeamish ... but it is absolutely necessary to save lives and to preserve nations.”
Seeing refugees and migrants as a threat to the very fabric of European societies is now a popular notion in Europe, resulting in the rise and fall of political parties.
Of course, this is not the case everywhere. On July 8, thousands of Germans marched throughout several cities calling for supporting of NGOs that help rescue refugees and migrants at sea, while protesting the EU’s ruthless new regulations.
A few days later, on July 12, Spain’s Supreme Court ordered the government to take in more refugees, even though Spain’s policies, in comparison to other governments, have been relatively accommodating. But this is hardly enough to shift the unmistakable trend. Right-wing parties are riding a massive wave of anti-immigration sentiment, and those who dare stand in the way are haemorrhaging voters at every local and national elections.
The recent European Council summit in Brussels was meant to end this division, and to formulate a united policy on this divisive issue of refugees. Instead, it served to highlight the sharp divisions among various European countries.
True, several European leaders, including Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, went home to speak triumphantly of a ‘great victory’ achieved through a supposedly united European position.
Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini used more derogatory terms in explaining his country’s new policy on refugees and migrants. “They will only see Italy on a postcard”, he said, referring to refugees who have been arriving in Italy with the help of humanitarian rescue boats.
One such boat, carrying over 600 refugees and economic migrants, the Aquarius, was sent back on June 11, followed by another, carrying over 200 refugees. When Italy carried out what then seemed like excessive action, the decision erupted into a massive political controversy between Italy, France, Spain, Malta and others.
However, the pandemonium has since subsided as Italy’s Conte declared that following the Brussels summit, his country ‘is no longer alone.’
What Conte, who presides over a populist, right-wing government, meant is that his country’s unwelcoming attitude towards refugees is now gathering greater European consensus.
The debate over refugees and migrants has become a source of political instability in countries like Germany, even though it is not considered a ‘front line state’ — countries that are likely to be the first destination for refugees escaping war or poverty at home.
On paper, representatives of European countries did, in fact, reach an agreement. The real problem ensued as soon as delegations returned to their respective countries.
Despite opposition from Poland and Hungary, as well as Italian threats to ‘veto’ any text that is not consistent with Italian priorities, the Council agreed on four main points:
First, the establishment of disembarkation centres outside European territories to be stationed mostly in North Africa. At that early stage, economic migrants would be separated from political asylum seekers.
This stipulation is redundant simply because, as the Guardian reports, “no North African country has agreed to host migrant centres to process refugee claims”. Egypt was the last to vehemently reject the EU proposal.
Second, Europeans agreed to strengthen border control through the Frontex system. Aside from the questionable tactics of this pan-European border police, this system has been in use for years and it is difficult to imagine how ‘strengthening’ it will translate into a more efficient or humane border control system.
Third, the Council called for the creation of ‘controlled’ refugee and migrant processing centres within Europe itself to quickly separate between refugees fleeing strife and economic migrants.
This clause was offered as a ‘voluntary’ step to be exercised by any state as it sees fit which again, will hardly contribute to a united European policy on the issue. Yet, despite the voluntary nature of this provision, it still stirred a political controversy in Germany.
Soon after the Council issued its final statement, Horst Lorenz Seehofer, Germany’s interior minister, threatened to quit Angela Merkel’s coalition government.
Merkel is now under dual pressure both from within her fractious coalition and also from without in the form of a massive political campaign championed by the far-right party, the ‘Alternative for Germany’. In fact, the latter group’s popularity is largely attributed to its anti-immigrant sentiment.
A compromise was reached, calling for the establishment of migrant ‘transit centres’ at the German-Austrian border. However, instead of resolving a problem, the decision created another one, propelling a new controversy in Austria itself. Austria, which also has its own populist, anti-immigrant constituency to placate, fears that the proximity of the German ‘transit centres’ would force it to receive Germany’s unwanted refugees.
The fourth and last decision by the European Council called for the boosting of North African economies and offering training for Libya’s coastguard.
As altruistic as the last stipulation may sound, it is, indeed, the most absurd especially since it was placed on the agenda with French enthusiasm. Even if one is to ignore France’s colonial history in Africa — grounded in the notion of usurping African resources under military threat — one can hardly ignore the role that Emmanuel Macron is playing in the current Libyan conflict.
Various media reports suggest that Macron’s government is continuing with the legacy of intervention initiated by the government of Nicolas Sarkozy, most notably in the military intervention of March 2011.
Libya, a failed state par excellence, is now fighting proxy wars in which France and Italy are the two main players.
The problem is that Europe continues to view the refugee crisis in terms of security, populist pressures and national identity, as opposed to it being a global humanitarian crisis invited by wars, political strife and economic inequality, of which Europe is hardly innocent.
As long as Europe continues to operate with a skewed definition of the crisis, the problem will continue to grow, leading to far dire consequences for all of those involved.
(Romana Rubeo, an Italian writer contributed to this article)
Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is ‘The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story’ (Pluto Press, London). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Centre for Global and International Studies, University of California Santa Barbara. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.