Politics

The European refugee crisis: protagonists, failures and controversies

Refugees jumping off a sinking vessel. Source: Wikimedia Commons

By Silvia Martelli

Where are we now? “The refugee crisis” is one of those phrases that constantly make headlines, especially in the case of Europe. For the past three years, the crisis has been given extensive coverage, with both sides of the debate being well-documented. One side claims that the EU is not doing enough, whereas the other believes that the refugee intake should be substantially reduced. Yet, it is increasingly challenging to establish who the crisis actually relates to: is it the refugees or the countries that receive them?

More than three years after the biggest influx of refugees coming into Europe since the Second World War, tensions between EU states over how to handle immigration remain high. A number of recent high-profile cases exemplify this. The latest one involves a non-profit organization’s ship, Sea-Watch 3, and the 47 migrants it saved from an inflatable vessel 45 miles from Tripoli, Libya. After being stuck in the Mediterranean for 12 days, on January 30 it was finally given permission to dock in Italy, following a deal with seven other EU countries on dividing up and taking in the refugees. Similarly, earlier in January, Sea-Watch and Sea-Eye – two vessels carrying 49 migrants in total – were left drifting in the sea for almost 20 days. The long odyssey ended in Malta, from where migrants were then relocated in eight different EU countries.

In both cases, Italy was put under a strain, being one of the most popular destinations of immigration routes. In an attempt to enhance cooperation from other EU countries, Deputy Prime Minister of Italy and Minister of the Interior, far-right Matteo Salvini, has decided to close Italian ports to non-Italian rescue vessels, a strategy he compared to the strict Australian ‘no-way’ immigration policy. The approach has been harshly criticised and repeatedly defined ‘inhuman’ by international organizations. Concerns remain high as, although the death toll on the central Mediterranean route to Italy has fallen in the past year, the number of those drowning as a proportion of arrivals has risen sharply according to the International Organisation for Migration.

The European refugee crisis

The so called ‘European refugee crisis’ has been one of the most prominent topics over the past years, generating mixed responses across the continent. A peak was registered in 2015-2016 when, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), around 1.5m people reached European shores, undertaking treacherous journeys from African and Middle-Eastern countries torn apart by wars and persecutions. Throughout the following year, more than 180,000 people risked their lives trying to reach the continent by sea, 3,000 of which died or went missing in the desperate journey. This was the highest recorded number of unsuccessful arrivals in the Mediterranean, with the crossing becoming deadlier every year. The number dropped again in 2018, at around 108,000.

The significant drop in the number of people claiming asylum in Europe is associated with a few factors, such as the 2016 EU deal with Turkey, intended to limit the influx of irregular migrants entering the EU through Turkey; new border fences in the Balkans; the 2017 deal between Italy and Libya (which Amnesty International defined as ‘dodgy’) whereby the former would work with the latter’s military and border control forces to stem the influx of illegal migrants, preventing them from reaching Europe.

The resolutions follow two decades of increasingly-militarised external frontiers in response to the coming down of borders within Europe in the 1990s, which granted EU citizens free movement. According to Amnesty International, between 2007 and 2013, the EU spent an estimated €700m on reception conditions for refugees, a small fraction of the €2bn spent on surveillance systems, fences and patrols on land or at sea. In theory, refugees should be exempt from these controls as, under the international law, they have the right to cross borders seeking asylum. But in reality, the EU has tried to obstruct this and border defences have only exacerbated the problem they purport to solve by pushing irregular migrants to take more dangerous routes, such as relying on people smugglers. This has in turn pushed Europe to crack down even harder on unwanted immigration, striking deals to block people-trafficking routes.

Anti-immigration sentiments across the continent

Throughout the crisis, Spain, Greece and mainly Italy have taken the majority of the strain because of their geographical position on the Mediterranean Sea and of the Dublin Regulation, the EU law according to which asylum seekers must lodge their applications in the country of first entry. In 2017, Italy took in 67% of the arrivals in Europe, Greece 17% and Spain 16%. Yet, the spread of anti-immigration sentiment across the continent is not only visible in the far-right League Party in Italy, but also in the populist Freedom Party in Austria and the right-wing Alternative for Germany party in Germany. All three have kept immigration firmly at the top of the political agenda.

The African ‘silent refugee crisis’

Whilst issues involving refugees and asylum seekers headed to developed countries have attracted the most attention in the media, the refugee crisis occurring in Africa has been heavily underplayed. According to UNHCR, Africa is now home to more refugees than any region of the world, with the sub-Saharan region hosting more than one-fourth of the world’s 68.5 million people forcibly displaced within or beyond their country’s borders.

Yet, some African states are adopting pioneering solutions. Examples are Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda, three East African countries whose average GDP is about 20 times less than Europe’s. Collectively, they host about 2.8 million refugees, more than the total that arrived in all of the 28 EU member states during 2015-2016. Each of them has adopted schemes that allow economic participation which, as research has shown, have benefited the development of the nation.

Can Europe learn from Africa?

The movement towards Europe continues to take a devastating toll on human life, and risks have not ended once in the continent: irregular immigrants have reported numerous types of abuse, including being pushed back across borders. With so many lives at risk, rescue-at-sea operations and feasible alternatives to dangerous irregular journeys must remain a priority. Those arriving in Europe – especially unaccompanied children and survivors of violences – must receive adequate assistance, speedy relocation and economic inclusion. Africa may offer some inspiration.

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