With thousands of people marooned in Greece, Serbia and Italy, Europe is split down the middle about how to deal with the influx of migrants.
British holidaymakers heading for Italy’s beaches and other popular Mediterranean destinations this weekend, as the summer school break begins, may get more than they bargained for.
Europe’s sun-kissed southern shores are more sought-after than ever. But many of this year’s visitors belong to new waves of refugees fleeing persecution and poverty in Africa, south Asia and the Middle East.
These unfortunates are not on holiday. Many are running for their lives. Nearly 95,000 people, a majority from sub-Saharan countries, have arrived by boat in southern Italy so far this year, up 17% on 2016. About 2,200 have died in the attempt.
European efforts to deal with the influx, hastily enacted two years ago at the height of Syria’s civil war, are faltering. A burden-sharing deal agreed by all 28 EU states in 2015, when Germany took nearly 1 million people, has arguably never worked. Of 160,000 refugees due to be accepted under the scheme, fewer than 21,000 have been relocated.
Europe is split down the middle. Poland and Hungary have refused to take anyone. The Czech Republic initially accepted 12 people but has since slammed the door. The European commission has begun legal action against all three. Italy and Greece, so-called “frontline states”, are at odds with their northern neighbours, notably France and Austria. Dashing hopes of a new approach, the new French president, Emmanuel Macron, is proving inflexible on the issue.
As we report today, hundreds of migrants are effectively kettled in Ventimiglia on the Italian side of the border with France. Paris is preventing vessels carrying rescued migrants docking in French ports. Nor has France met its share of the European Union relocation quota. Austria is paying refugees to leave, amid a rise in far right and neo-Nazi attacks. The Vienna government says it will close the Brenner Pass if Italy issues temporary travel visas for the migrants.
The Italian government, facing elections in 2018 and under pressure from the populist Five Star movement opposition, is furious about perceived French hypocrisy. “After saying they understand our problem, it doesn’t seem like Francewants to help us concretely … we need more solidarity,” says Mario Giro, Italy’s deputy foreign minister.
The new refugee crisis is playing into a bigger, EU-wide battle about respect for national sovereignty. Hungary’s rightwing prime minister, Viktor Orbán, says he will “not give in to blackmail from Brussels”. Poland says the EU relocation scheme encourages more migrants, arguing most refugees do not genuinely fear persecution but are economic migrants seeking a better life.
If this summer’s crisis continues to escalate, it could influence Britain’s Brexit debate on continued freedom of movement while boosting populist, racist and xenophobic narratives across Europe about a “flood” of 6.6 million migrants this year alone.
Britain’s contribution is unimpressive, but not as bad as some. The UK pledged to accept 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. Official figures say 5,453 Syrians were resettled in the UKin the year ending March 2017. There were also 1,507 grants of asylum.
A separate EU deal with Turkey last year, overseen by Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, is also proving problematic. In return for Turkish help in stemming the flow of Syrians via Greece and the Balkans, Ankara was offered €6bn to assist with nearly 3 million refugees on its soil. The EU also pledged to take more Syrians over time.
But Amnesty International says the basic premise – that Turkey is a safe place for refugees – is flawed. As of February this year, only 3,565 people had been accepted by EU states from Turkey. And as Europe-Turkey relations deteriorate, the repressive government of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is threatening to turn on the refugee “tap” again.
Meanwhile, increased rates of depression, self-harm and suicide are reported among 70,000 refugees marooned in holding camps in Greece and Serbia.
Confusion and division also characterise Europe’s policy towards Libya, the main stepping-off point for migrants. Much of Libya is ungoverned following the US, British and French-backed overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in 2011, and UN-led efforts to restore order are floundering.
Overwhelmed by sheer numbers, Italy has been trying to limit its at-sea rescue efforts. But as elsewhere, political and humanitarian responses are in conflict. About 3,000 people from Libya were picked up in one day in May in more than 20 rescue operations mounted by the Italian coastguard and navy, ships from the EU’s Mediterranean mission, its Frontex border agency, and merchant vessels.
Merkel was widely praised for her open-door response in 2015 but public attitudes have hardened, and she faces a general election in September.
Her focus now is her new “compact with Africa”, showcased at the Hamburg G20 summit, which seeks more state and private investment in Africa to combat poverty and the effects of climate change, and thereby deter mass migration to Europe.
But Merkel’s solution is long-term. Europe’s new refugee crisis is happening now, as British beach-goers may soon testify.