10.21.13

Moral Borders: The Human Cost of Europe's Immigration Policy

(Originally published on The Diplomacist)

A solitary trawler, overladen with African immigrants, floated for two days on the rough waters between Libya and Italy before breaking down a quarter-mile from the small Sicilian island of Lampedusa. Floating in the darkness and hidden to those on the nearby island, the passengers acted in desperation, lighting a blanket on fire as a crude signal to those onshore. What was meant to be a beacon of survival resulted in a terrible tragedy. The burning blanket ignited gasoline, sending the ship’s 500 passengers—including children—into a panic that capsized the boat. Many could not swim. With 181 reported deaths and up to 250 unaccounted for, this is the worst of the various crossing tragedies in recent memory and has shone a harsh light on Europe’s strict immigration policy.

Southern European nations such as Italy and Greece serve as a gateway for immigrants from the Middle East and Africa into the rest of Europe. Despite the enormous pressure these migration patterns impose on all of Europe, and the anti-immigrant political conflict provoked in countries from Austria to Hungary, France, and beyond, the European Union’s policy relies on peripheral gateway countries such as Greece and Italy—who are often desperately under-prepared for asylum and integration procedures—to somehow hold back the flood of immigrants streaming in from war-torn and impoverished areas around Europe’s periphery.

Greece, for example, recently constructed an eight-mile fence to demarcate its border with Turkey and thwart a major overland migration route from the Middle East into Greece, where anti-immigration sentiments have flared since the economic crisis. Such efforts by Greece harbor a range of unintended consequences, as preventing a land-crossing means these desperate refugees turn to more treacherous crossings by water, often on under-equipped and over-crowded boats that easily capsize and are conducive to the spread of disease.  

After the recent accident off the island of Lampedusa, the European Commission blamed smugglers for their “exploitative” practices and bemoaned the lack of dialogue between Southern European gateway nations and nations of origin such as Libya, Eritrea, and Somalia. It is true that smugglers exploit the desperation of refugees,collecting huge sums of money and in return providing reckless and dangerous resources for crossing into European waters. It is also true that an improved dialogue with nations of origin could be consequential, perhaps to engage in economic partnerships that will alleviate some of the desperate circumstances that compel migrants to enter Europe. The European Commission’s recognition of the immigration crisis and its nefarious players fails to address the need of European policy-makers to facilitate such a dialogue on the European level, and not delegating this colossal task to  peripheral European states or depending on volatile regimes in Libya and Somalia.

In the nations through which immigrants enter Europe, the immigration problem has had drastic political consequences. The combination of prolonged economic and social crisis coupled with a steady flood of immigrants inevitably leads to the false diagnosis that immigrants are in fact the reason for rampant unemployment and dismal economic growth. This attitude, which stems from both an electoral mandate to strike a hard line on immigration as well a top down utilization of scape-goats for mass mobilization purposes, makes these countries even less willing to create a comprehensive, humanitarian integration systems. Haphazard immigration policy on the EU level, therefore, means the generation of a vicious cycle that leads to violence against immigrants, anti-immigration rhetoric in high political offices, and brutal conditions within asylum centers, where refugees could wait years in prison-like conditions for "processing."

The flow of immigrants over the next few years will surely test the cohesion of the European super-state, as it will be forced to confront a truly regional dilemma, coordinating between divergent national attitudes and strategies. Pope Francis, who spoke on Lampedusa this past July to highlight the island’s significance as a haven for immigrants seeking refuge, called the accident a “disgrace,” adding that “only a decided collaboration among all can help to stop them." Whether he was referring to the refugees who undertake the treacherous trip or the smugglers that facilitate it, accidents like this make it clear that Europe's borders need to be drawn with moral considerations.

From Reuters

From Reuters