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Europe’s Refugee Crisis: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Refugees from the wars of the Middle East are pouring into the European Union at an unprecedented rate. So are economic migrants from Africa and non-EU countries in the Balkans (Serbia, Bosnia, Albania, etc.), and some of them claim to be refugees too. They are coming at the rate of about 3,000 a day, mostly through Turkey into Greece or across the Mediterranean to Italy, and the EU doesn’t know what to do about it.

It’s not really that big a refugee crisis: one million people at most this year, or one-fifth of one percent of the European Union’s 500 million people. Little Lebanon (population 4.5 million) has already taken in a million refugees, as has Jordan (pop. 6.5 million). But while a few of the EU’s 28 countries are behaving well, many more have descended into a gibbering panic about being “overrun”.

It really is a case of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and the best of the Good is Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel put it bluntly: “If Europe fails on the question of refugees…it will not be the Europe we imagined.” She has put her money where her mouth is: two weeks ago she predicted that Germany would accept asylum claims from 800,000 refugees this year.

She also said that Germany is suspending the “Dublin regulation”, an internal EU rule that says refugees must seek asylum in the first EU country they reach. This is manifestly unfair to Greece and Italy, so Berlin will now allow all Syrian refugees to apply for asylum in Germany regardless of where they entered the EU. Moreover, it will regard Syrian citizenship as adequate evidence that people are genuine refugees.

France, Italy and the Netherlands have also been fairly generous about granting refugees asylum, and quiet, gallant Sweden is accepting more refugees per capita than anybody else in the EU. But the good news stops here. Most other EU countries are refusing to take a fair share of the refugees, or even any at all.

Let us define the Bad as those governments that really know they should be doing more, but are shirking their responsibility for domestic political reasons. The most prominent are the United Kingdom and Spain, which played a key role in sabotaging an EU meeting last June that was trying to agree on a formula for sharing the refugee burden fairly among EU members.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s problem is that overall immigration into Britain is high (330,000 last year), which has infuriated the right-wing media. In fact, more than half the newcomers were citizens of other EU countries (who have the right to cross borders in search of jobs), and only 25,000 were refugees – but such fine distinctions have little place in the public debate. And in Spain, there’s an election coming up.

Then there are the Ugly: the countries that simply don’t want to take in refugees because they are different from the local people. Like Slovakia, which said that it might take a few hundred refugees, but only Christians, or Hungary and the Czech Republic, which are both talking about deploying armed forces on their borders to keep refugees out.

All these countries lived under Soviet rule for two generations, which was almost like living in a cave. They have almost no experience of immigration, and it’s commonplace to hear people make racist or anti-Semitic remarks without the slightest sense of shame. In a way, they are still living in the 1950s. It’s not an excuse, but it is an explanation.

So how, in these circumstances, is the European Union to agree on a common policy for sharing the burden of caring for the refugees? “We must push through uniform European asylum policies,” Angela Merkel says, but the EU operates on a consensus basis, and there is little chance that that will be accepted. In practice, therefore, the burden will continue to be borne by the willing.

In an attempt to lessen the burden, the German chancellor has proposed a list of “safe” countries (like the Balkan ones, which account for 40 percent of asylum claims in Germany), where it may be presumed that most claimants are really economic migrants. Arrivals from “unsafe” countries like Syria, Libya and Afganistan, where real wars are underway, would be treated as genuine refugees. But even then, each case must be investigated individually.

“Germany is a strong country and the motto must be: ‘we’ve managed so much, we can manage this’,” Merkel said, and no doubt she can get through this year without changing course. But there is every reason to believe that there will be another million people risking everything to make it across the EU’s borders next year, and probably for many years thereafter. It may even get worse.

In the long run it is almost certain to get worse, even if the current wars in the Middle East all miraculously end. Coming up behind the current crisis is the inexorable advance of climate change, which will hit the Middle East and Africa very hard indeed. Nobody has the slightest idea how many refugees that will generate, but it is likely to be many times the current flow.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 11. (“She…refugees”; and “In an…individually”)

Half a Titanic

The first thing to do, if you want to cut the number of refugees from Africa and the Middle East dying while trying to cross the Mediterranean, is to drop leaflets all along the Libyan coast teaching them about ship stability. Don’t all rush to one side when you spot a ship that might save you, the pamphlets will say, because your boat will capsize and you will drown.

That’s what happened last weekend off the Libyan coast, where a boat filled with at least 700 refugees overturned when the people aboard spotted a Portuguese freighter and tried to attract its attention. (One survivor says there were 950 people aboard, including those locked below decks. ) At least 650 people died – half a Titanic’s worth of casualties – although the boat in question was only 20 metres (70 ft.) long. Only 28 people were saved.

Exactly the same thing happened with another boat crammed with refugees the previous week, and another 400 people drowned. Counting another 300+ people who drowned in another disaster in February, the death toll right now, before the peak summer season for refugee crossings, is around 1,500. That’s a full Titanic. It’s not getting quite as many headlines, though.

So the second thing to do is to lock the European Union’s foreign ministers into a room and refuse to let them have caviar and champagne until they agree to do something about the silent massacre in the Mediterranean. Something quite effective was being done until late last year, but they deliberately stopped it.

Until late last year the Italian navy (praise be upon it) was running an operation called Mare Nostrum that went all the way to the edge of Libya’s territorial waters to pluck refugees from the sea. The operation cost 9.5 million euros a month ($10.3 million), but it rescued 100,000 people from leaking boats or the open sea. More than half of the 170,000 refugees who landed in Italy had cause to thank the Italian navy, and only one in a hundred died.

The number of refugees arriving in Italy each month is around the same this year, maybe a little higher – but ten times as many people are dying on the way. That is because the European Union’s governments, rather than sharing the cost of the Mare Nostrum project, asked Italy to shut it down and substituted their own “Triton” operation.

Except that “Triton” is in no way an adequate substitute. It only gets a third of funding Mare Nostrum had, and it is only supposed to operate in Italy’s coastal waters, not farther out where most of the refugee boats capsize or founder. Even this year, with the Italian navy theoretically excused from duty, it has saved twice as many people as the pathetic “Triton” operation. Which, by the way, was INTENDED to be pathetic.

The argument the European governments made was that if you didn’t give the refugees the hope that they would be saved by the Italian navy, fewer of them would come. Right, so if you’re fleeing the civil war in Syria or the ghastly dictatorship in Eritrea, and you learn that the danger of dying on a Mediterranean crossing has gone up from one percent to ten percent, you’re going to decide to stay in war-torn Libya instead?

Were the European governments lying to themselves, or just to everybody else? The latter, almost certainly. They were under pressure at home to stop the flow of migrants, they didn’t want to share the burden of saving them with the admirable Italians, but they couldn’t just say “Let them drown.” So they came up with that preposterous argument about deterring the migrants by making the crossing more dangerous, and shut Mare Nostrum down.

“In many countries in Europe at the moment,” said Laurens Jolles, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) representative in Italy, “the (political) dialogue and the rhetoric is quite extreme and very irresponsible….It’s a fear of foreigners…, but it is being exploited for populist or political reasons, especially in election periods.”

Too true. Take, for example, Katie Hopkins, columnist for The Sun, a down-market right-wing British red-top (tabloid newspaper) owned by the estimable Rupert Murdoch. Last Friday, in an article headlined “Rescue boats? I’d use gunships to stop migrants”, she wrote: “NO, I don’t care. Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care.”

“Make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit “Bob Geldof’s Ethiopia circa 1984”, but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb. They are survivors….It’s time to get Australian. Bring on the gunships, force migrants back to their shores and burn the boats.”

Saying that sort of thing is how she earns her living, but it also expresses the true sentiments of a politically significant minority not only in Britain but in most countries throughout the European Union. When the UNHCR appealed to the EU to resettle 130,000 Syrian refugees, Germany said it would take 30,000, Sweden (with a tenth of Germany’s population) took 2,700 –and the other 26 EU states only took 5,438 between them.

So the drownings will continue.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 9 and 12. (“Exactly…though”; “Were…down”; and “Make…boats”)

Drowning Refugees

The European Union’s decision-making processes lend new depth to the word “incoherent”, and the current British government’s default mode is nastiness, but they have both outdone themselves this time. The subject at hand is the Italian Navy’s “Mare Nostrum” operation, which has rescued 150,000 refugees and migrants from leaky, overloaded boats in the Mediterranean since it was launched a year ago.

An estimated 3,000 others have drowned since January: you can’t save them all. But the Italian Navy has done an excellent job, with no help at all from other EU countries – which was very unfair, since Italy is simply the nearest part of the European Union to the North African coast that the boats start out from.

Finally, after endless pleas from Italy, the other EU members gathered in Brussels earlier this month and agreed to replace the Italian ships with a joint EU mission code-named Triton. But there was a catch. In fact, there were several.

Triton will only have one-third of the financial resources that Mare Nostrum had. It will have precisely six small ships, two fixed-wing aircraft, and one helicopter, instead of the Italian Navy’s ample supply of ships and aircraft. It will have no search-and-rescue function at all, and it will only operate up to 30 nautical miles (50 km) from Italy’s coasts. Further out, they’ll just have to drown.

It’s quite an efficient way of ensuring that fewer refugees actually reach the EU, but it is so stunningly callous that even the British Foreign Office’s official spokesman felt obliged to spin it as a humanitarian initiative in heavy disguise.

“Ministers across Europe have expressed concerns,” he said, “that search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean have acted as a pull factor for illegal migration, encouraging people to make dangerous crossings in the expectation of rescue. This has led to more deaths as traffickers have exploited the situation using boats that are unfit to make the crossing.” So letting lots of them drown will presumably discourage others and save more lives in the end.

Nobody is actually expected to believe this nonsense. It’s just a “talking point” that lets the speaker deny the obvious fact that the policy is designed to appeal to the wave of anti-immigrant, anti-refugee opinion that has been drummed up by populist politicians and media in Britain and a number of other EU countries. Drowning refugees is good politics.

Enter Admiral Filippo Maria Foffi, commander-in-chief of the Italian Navy, who promptly torpedoed the whole “drown them to save them” argument.

The refugees, fleeing from  Syria, Eritrea or even further afield, travel for up to three months before they reach the shores of North Africa, he said. They suffer hardships that kill up to half of them, and then they board the boats. “If someone is speaking about a ‘pulling factor’, he doesn’t know what he is speaking about.”

Foffi had more to say. He had received no orders from the Italian government to shut down Mare Nostrum, he said, and so long as he did not he would continue the search-and-rescue operations.

What about the recent statement by Angelino Alfano, the leader of a small right-wing party and interior minister in the Italian coalition government, that Mare Nostrum would indeed be closed down? Foffi replied that he received his orders from the prime minister through the defence minister. Responding to some random statement by another minister was “not the way that military men conduct their activities.”

There was clearly a struggle underway within the Italian government about whether to just let the refugees die, or to continue doing search-and-rescue operations alone in the absence of an acceptable substitute paid for by the EU. Officially Mare Nostrum is now closed down, but there is still hope that the Italian Navy may continue at least part of the operation on a less formal basis.

The EU, of course, is acting with its usual combination of cowardice and confusion. The British government is playing dog-whistle politics again: it expects the target audience, those who are being seduced away from their Conservative roots by the anti-immigrant UKIP Party, to understand that it really wants to drown the refugees, not save them.

And lots of other European governments really want to drown the refugees too: the amount of money at stake is not large enough to serve as an alternative explanation for this decision. It may yet be thwarted, at least in part, by admirable Italians like Filippo Maria Foffi, but the EU is really talking about killing people here. Or letting them die, if you prefer, but it comes down to much the same thing.

How long before they start actively killing refugees fleeing from war, hunger and climate change along Europe’s Mediterranean sea frontier (and along Australia’s northern sea frontier, and the US border with Mexico, and probably South Africa’s northern border too)? Ten to fifteen years, at a guess. We’ll all have got used to the principle by then.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 11.  (“Nobody…politics”; and “What…activities”)

Mediterranean Cemetery

16 October 2013

Mediterranean Cemetery

By Gwynne Dyer

“I don’t know how many more people need to die at sea before something gets done,” said Malta’s prime minister, Joseph Muscat. “As things stand we are building a cemetery within our Mediterranean Sea.”

He was talking about the part of the Mediterranean between the North African coast and the two islands that are the closest bits of the European Union: the Italian island of Lampedusa and his own country, Malta. In the past two weeks, almost as many migrants have died in that narrow stretch of water – only 120 km. (80 miles) separate the Tunisian coast from Lampedusa – as died along the US-Mexican border in all of last year.

On the southern US border they mostly die of thirst in the desert; in the Mediterranean they drown. The migrants pay the people smugglers in Libya or Tunisia thousands of dollars each to make the crossing in small, unseaworthy, grossly overcrowded boats, but the smugglers don’t go with them. They don’t want to get arrested at the end of the journey. They just hand over the keys to the migrants.

The refugees – more than half of the 32,000 who have reached Italy so far this year come from Syria, Somalia or Eritrea – have no experience at sea. The boats leak, they run out of fuel, they catch fire, and nobody knows what to do about it. In many cases, the boats just capsize when everybody rushes to the same side to call for help from a passing ship or aircraft.

Then they are in the water, and of course there are no life-jackets. Last week, when 359 Somali and Eritrean migrants drowned in a single boat, nobody even had a satellite phone to summon help. Most of the migrants can’t swim, and even those who can often drown before help arrives. Every sinking brings stories of parents who could swim, but had to choose which children to save.

“For us it’s intolerable that the Mediterranean is a sea of the dead,” said Prime Minister Enrico Letta of Italy on Monday, announcing that his country is tripling its air and naval presence in the death zone. But as Interior Minister Angelino Alfano warned, “It’s not a given that the intervention of an Italian ship will mean that migrants are taken to an Italian port.”

They don’t want the migrants to die, but they don’t want them to stay in Italy either. As in other European Union countries that are getting a lot of asylum-seekers, the flood of migrants from Africa and the Middle East is fueling a powerful anti-immigrant backlash.

The numbers are not really all that huge. Frontex, the EU agency that deals with refugees, recorded only 272,208 asylum-seekers last year. That’s the biggest number since 2005, but it’s only a drop in the bucket among the EU’s 400 million people.

The problem is that they almost all head for a few relatively rich countries in western Europe – Britain, France, Germany and the Low Countries – or else end up stranded in Greece, Italy or Spain, the countries closest to where the refugees sail from. And for Italy, in particular, the problem has got a lot worse recently.

A joint EU police force managed to close off the previously favoured route for Middle Eastern refugees, the Greek-Turkish border, in 2010, but that just redirected the migrants to sea routes across the Mediterranean. The recent revolutions in Libya and Tunisia have crippled the ability of those countries to control their own coasts. And the wars in Syria and Somalia are generating ever larger numbers of desperate asylum-seekers.

The Italians do let most of the migrants stay – although Germany accused Italy last May of encouraging the refugees to move on by giving them 500 euros ($680) and a “Schengen” visa that allows them to travel to most other EU countries without passport checks. But the brutal truth is this: the safer the EU countries make the Mediterranean crossing, the more people will try to come.

Most of the migrants currently risking their lives in those little boats are genuine refugees, but behind them, in the vast sweep of countries from West Africa to Somalia and Iraq, there are several hundred million others who would leap at the chance of moving to Europe. The nationalists in those countries will indignantly deny that, but you only have to talk to ordinary people there to know that it is true.

Europeans, like most people, want to see themselves as generous and caring, but behind all the humanitarian talk there is the stark reality that the EU will never make it so easy and safe to get in that even a small fraction of that vast reservoir of would-be migrants actually tries to make the journey. European leaders who let that happen would be committing political suicide.

The least bad solution would be to encourage the emergence of stable governments in Tunisia and Libya that could stop the boats from leaving their shores, but that will not happen any time soon. In the meantime, people will go on drowning in the Mediterranean, although hopefully in smaller numbers than the catastrophe of the last few weeks.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8, 9 and 10. (“The numbers…seekers”)