“This has to stop”

Recent mass drownings off the coast of Italy have reopened the immigration debate at a time when European voters are more concerned about their own problems

Ana Carbajosa
Coffins of dead migrants are lined up in a hangar of Lampedusa airport.
Coffins of dead migrants are lined up in a hangar of Lampedusa airport. ALBERTO PIZZOLI (AFP)

This has to be stopped! This has to be stopped!" cried Giusi Nicolini, the mayor of Lampedusa last week, after more than 300 migrants drowned making the crossing from Tunisia to the tiny Italian island off Sicily. Since then, another boat has sunk, with more than 50 feared dead. The EU seems unable to come up with an answer to the issue of migration — perhaps because there is no magic solution. At the same time, politicians are aware that their electorates are increasingly seduced by the anti-immigration rhetoric that far-right parties are peddling throughout a Europe mired in crisis.

Few would disagree with Nicolini that something must be done. The question is what: on the one hand, there are those who want Europe's borders hermetically sealed, while others argue that it should open its doors both to political refugees and economic migrants. The only area of agreement is that the current policies are not working.

The debate that has been reopened by the deaths off the coast of Lampedusa has been around for decades. The issue is a complex one: armed conflict, inequality and international solidarity are questions that can only be answered in the long term. In the short term, there is a need to end the loss of life and to create a model that allows for the ordered movement of people, as well as both implementing policies that help the countries of origin to provide better opportunities for their populations, and a means for Europe to access the labor it so badly needs.

It would appear that we have learned little from our experience so far to help alleviate the situation. More and more people are dying, while the forecasts for the number of people fleeing the conflict in Syria suggest that Europe will be under ever-greater pressure to address the issue of migration.

It is clear Europe needs to make major changes to its policies toward its Mediterranean neighbors"

"If we look at the major events taking place in the Arab world, it is clear that Europe needs to make major changes to its policies toward its Mediterranean neighbors," Cecilia Malmström, the EU's Interior Commissioner, told students at Harvard University earlier this year.

Has the moment arrived for a radical change in migration policies? This is one of the questions that has gained renewed importance in the wake of the Lampedusa tragedy. Has the time come to open our borders not just to goods and technology, but to people as well? Or is Lampedusa the definitive indication that the time has come to seal our borders? And if not, then just how many people can we allow in without creating an imbalance in our societies, which are already near to tipping point given the ongoing crisis?

While goods and money circulate around the world with increasing ease, people are still unable to move from one country to another. Our walls may be higher than ever, but they are doing little to dissuade people from the developing world that a better life awaits them here. And so they come, legally, or otherwise.

And in the process, thousands die each year, drowned at sea, mostly. And so come the calls from a growing number of experts and academics that something has to be done.

Directives of shame

Italy's laws against clandestine immigration have set alarm bells ringing within the EU, although it was Brussels that originally set them in motion. In 2002, the European Council approved, at France's behest, a directive that allowed member states to punish not just those who traffic people for money, but anybody who helps migrants trying to enter the country illegally, or who have entered it without the necessary paperwork. The directive does not stop somebody from offering humanitarian aid, but this precedent does make it very difficult for the EU or EU officials to criticize countries that take a more restrictive approach to dealing with immigrants.

After the 2002 move toward criminalizing help for migrants, when the crisis hit in 2008 another set of measures was approved, now known as the "Directive of Shame," dealing with the return to their countries of origin of migrants without papers. The legislation sets a time frame for migrants to be sent back, and allows for people to be kept in detention centers for up to 18 months.

Despite the growing hostility toward foreigners in many EU member states, there is no official data that actually justifies these tough measures. "Show me the figures," is what Cecilia Malmström, the EU's Interior Commissioner, usually says to countries who complain that they are being flooded with migrants. She continues to argue that Europe will continue to need immigration if it is to maintain its generous welfare state. She says that the EU needs to work out a common policy toward immigration. This task should have been made easier by the removal of the need for unanimity between member states, but even that, it seems, will not be enough to bring about a change anytime soon.

"The current situation is inhumane," says Nicolas Berger, Amnesty International's European director. "Focusing on the physical control of borders will not solve the problem. We have to understand that violence and war will not disappear and that people will continue to try to escape from conflict and poverty. The more we close the borders, the more dangerous clandestine routes will become. That is why I believe the current approach is only putting more lives in danger."

So what is the answer? "To begin with, each country, based on size, should take responsibility for a reasonable number of immigrants. There are huge differences between the numbers different countries are prepared to accept," says Berger.

Vittorio Longhi is an Italian writer and thinker and author of The Immigrant War, in which he describes the current situation as akin to a conflict. He argues that the number of people dying as they try to make their way to Europe, the United States and Australia is similar to the casualties produced by a war.

"Our policies are not working," he says bluntly. "We are pretending that there isn't really a problem out there, but there is, and it won't go away. We don't need 200 people to die to make us aware of what is going on. One body should be enough to see that something is wrong here." He calculates that at least 20,000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean trying to make their way into Europe over the last two decades.

What to do is evidently the nub of the issue here. It may well be that inequality and war will always exist and that there will never be a shortage of people prepared to risk their lives in search of a better future. We have to decide therefore, who can come in and who cannot, and above all, try to make sure that people do not die in the process of doing so. That said, there are very few people who defend opening our borders completely, while the policy of leaving it to countries to decide themselves who they let in is rarely questioned.

Longhi says that there is a middle ground between the two positions, arguing that part of the problem would be resolved if the channels for legal migration were improved, either by opening up new areas of the economy to migrants or by increasing quotas within the existing sectors open to immigration. Many other experts back this view. "We have to channel migration to those areas of the economy that need labor. Many countries could take more people. The proof of this is that migrants without papers still find work. The problem is that traditionally the migration debate has been dominated by xenophobia. This has never been a calm discussion that takes into account, for example, the contribution that migrants make to the economy. Politicians often send the message out to the electorate that they are doing everything they can to limit migration," Longhi explains.

We are not complying with international maritime law; the obligation to rescue vessels is being interpreted in a restrictive way"

One such politician is Philip Claeys, a member of the European Parliament for Belgian far-right party Vlaams Belang, which like many other similar groups throughout Europe focuses almost exclusively on immigration issues and the need to close the door to further migration. He says that Europeans are worried about immigration, but that "for many years the subject has been taboo. People are sick and tired. Immigrants come here by illegal means, and then take advantage of our welfare system. They send their children to school, use our hospitals, but do not integrate. We don't want any more ghettos in Europe," says Claeys.

"Look, people without papers come to Europe because they know that there is a strong possibility that once they are here they will be allowed to stay. Many EU states are too lax in this regard, and end up allowing these people to make a life here, even though they are not political refugees. If these people knew that there was no chance they would even be allowed in, they wouldn't be throwing themselves into the sea to get here," he adds.

Claeys recently visited Algeciras and other cities on Spain's southern coast, and says that he was astonished at the huge numbers of migrants without papers who have been able to stay in Spain. Like the mayor of Lampedusa, Claeys also insists that "this must stop."

Claeys operates on the far right of the political spectrum, but over the years, his ideas, and those of similar parties, have gradually influenced the immigration debate throughout Europe, as mainstream parties see that anti-immigration arguments prove tempting to many voters.

Elizabeth Collet, the head of the European wing of the Migration Policy Institute, says that the financial crisis has made people much more jittery about immigration.

We need to take in many, many more than 60,000 Syrians"

"The key thing to remember is that perception is everything. When people are asked how many immigrants there are in their country, they invariably give a much higher figure than the real one," she says. But Collet is among those who believe that things can change.

"Borders are a concept in continual evolution. Forty years ago, nobody believed that we would be able to move freely around the Schengen area without a passport and that countries like Mexico and Turkey would be destinations for migrants."

Collet believes that the demographic changes of the next two decades will be crucial. "We will have to see what the impact of Asia's economic rise is, and whether it becomes a magnet for migrants. Perhaps we Europeans will wake up and realize that we weren't such an attractive destination after all."

Above and beyond the debate, says Judith Sunderland, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who monitors western Europe, we could improve the situation simply by complying with the law as it stands, and by modifying others slightly. "We are not complying with international maritime law, for example. The obligation to rescue vessels is being interpreted in an extremely restrictive way, and there are countries like Italy that actually punish those who help boats in trouble, or who tie them up in red tape when they try to bring people they have rescued at sea to shore."

Another minor change that would have a major impact, says Sunderland, would be to improve family reunification policies. Many of those boarding rickety boats and heading out to sea are the families of migrants now living in Europe who have been granted residency, but who cannot bring their families over through legal means.

"In some countries they have to prove that they have a home large enough to accommodate the family and that they have a guaranteed income, as well as their own health insurance," Sunderland explains by way of example.

And then there are Europe's asylum rules. There is a large degree of consensus on the need to guarantee that those fleeing war and persecution should be given refuge. The problem is that not even the safety of these people has been resolved. The Dublin II agreement obliges those requesting asylum to do so in person in the country they have entered. There are vast numbers of refugees taking to the sea in a bid to reach a country where they can ask for asylum. This is what the experts call "mixed flows."

Those rickety boats contain a mixture of desperate people; it's just that the desperation of some has a stronger legal basis than that of others. Some experts defend the need to open offices in the countries of origin to process asylum requests.

Finally, there is the debate on the need to address the causes of the problem. For years now, governments and institutions have been gradually realizing that the best way to avoid people having to emigrate is by investing in the development of the countries of origin. Those who believe that greater efforts need to be made in this regard argue that few people actually want to leave their homes and their families behind, and only do so out of desperation. "But of course these are long-term approaches. Countries do not change from one day to the next," says Sunderland. Financial help is often insufficient in the absence of political change in the countries of origin.

Volker Türk, the head of the UN's International Protection Agency for refugees, explains the range of proposals and initiatives that as a first measure could help to save lives. He questions the viability of the proposal for the UN to open offices in the countries of origin from which those seeking asylum come, saying that registering such people could actually put their lives in danger.

But Türk says that there is a bigger issue at stake here. He believes that there are already a good number of legal instruments, dispositions, and framework agreements, and that these could be used by governments to improve the situation. "Right now, what we need is to put them into action, and that is only possible with political will and solidarity," he says.

This would explain why, for example, the vast majority of the 2.1 million Syrian refugees fleeing war over the last two years have ended up in neighboring states like Lebanon, which is now close to saturation point. Europe has taken barely 60,000 people. "We need to take many, many more," he says.

Will the tragic events in Lampedusa do anything to awaken our conscience and to take the steps necessary to resolve the issue? "We can only hope so," says Türk with resignation.

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