Thursday

17th Jan 2019

Opinion

Migration: Europe's wakeup call

  • "Anti-immigration attitudes are ever more important in the continent’s politics" (Photo: Steve Rhodes)

Europe faced a wakeup call on 19 April. The capsizing of a boat carrying African migrants to Italy was hardly the first incident of its kind—last year, more than 3,000 people drowned in the Mediterranean while attempting to reach Europe—but it was the deadliest, claiming as many as 900 lives.

The latest tragedy made clear what was already painfully obvious: that Europe as a whole has a moral obligation to address this crisis, not just leaving its responsibility to the countries in the South.

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  • "A humane mechanism for foreigners to legally enter the EU is needed" (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

There are encouraging signs that the EU is beginning to comprehend the urgency of the situation.

Shortly after the disaster, the European Commission released a draft ten-point plan calling for stronger efforts to tackle smugglers and greater cooperation in rescue and patrol operations.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, whose country receives most of the migrants trying to enter the EU, has gone even further, urging the creation of centres in Africa for processing asylum applicants.

And the last week’s emergency summit, while disappointing from a humanitarian standpoint (the resulting policies were focused on reaction and security rather than prevention) also signalled the EU’s new seriousness in dealing with this crisis.

These are welcome steps, but they alone will not solve the migrant situation.

The number of people seeking haven in Europe has increased as a result of deepening conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Yemen and deteriorating human rights situations in many African nations. As long as these conflicts and abuses continue, people will continue to flee them for the relative stability and prosperity of Europe.

Only by establishing a comprehensive and humane mechanism for foreigners to legally enter the EU can the continent stem the tide of migrants and reduce the body count in the Mediterranean.

Extreme nationalism

Europe faces a major obstacle to the implementation of a successful immigration policy, however the growing extreme nationalism sentiment that has recently become a troubling fixture of its politics.

In Greece—another nation receiving many immigrants each year—the country’s third most popular party is Golden Dawn, whose main spokesman sports a swastika tattoo and whose 2012 campaign slogans included: “So we can rid the land of this filth.”

In Italy, the Italian Northern League calls for an end to unauthorised immigration, espouses anti-Roma ideas, and wants Italy to leave the Euro; it won 19% of the vote in a regional election last year.

Even traditionally tolerant nations like France and Sweden have seen a surge in prejudice.

The sluggish EU economy has not helped. In times of uncertainty, low-wage workers often blame immigrants for taking their jobs, though there is little evidence for these claims.

Europe’s revived xenophobic-nationalism has many disturbing implications.

Where the migrant issue is concerned, in the short term, it threatens to scupper any proposal for properly dealing with the catastrophe unfolding on Europe’s southern shores.

Anti-immigration attitudes are ever more important in the continent’s politics, and political leaders seeking to be elected will take advantage of this.

British prime minister David Cameron, for instance, agreed to contribute boats to the EU’s expanded prevention and rescue efforts, but he and other northern European leaders continue to dither about the question of allowing immigrants to enter their countries.

What kind of Europe?

The stakes are much higher in the long term.

How Europe chooses to tackle trans-Mediterranean migration is a question of what kind of place Europe wants to be.

Does it want to be a democratic, peaceful, and pluralistic group of nations, as the EU’s founders envisioned? Or does it want to be a fractious, hostile and authoritarian land whose highest ideals are eroded by fear and hate?

The consequences of taking the latter route are enormous.

Refusing to treat immigrants humanely will harm Europe’s faltering economy. Contrary to those who claim to protect Europe from foreigners, anti-immigrant policies would only lend credence to radical extremists who paint Europe as a racist land.

And such policies would be a danger for its democratic systems and also deprive Europe of the moral high ground in conducting its foreign policy, a grave blow to world order.

But above all, failure to act in concert to end a human rights crisis in its midst would represent another blow to the increasingly troubled European experiment.

The EU was created to ensure that the horrors of the World Wars would never be repeated, that hate and bigotry would never again reign in Europe.

The migrant crisis puts that proposition to the test - a test Europe cannot afford to fail.

Frank La Rue is the Executive Director of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Europe

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