Home / Feature / The politics of migration are an entirely different matter

The politics of migration are an entirely different matter

Rayhan Ahmed Topader:

European Union leaders have defended a migration deal struck during talks in Brussels as doubts emerged about whether they would fulfil their promises to build secure centres for processing asylum claims of people rescued at sea. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said Europe had made a step in the right direction on migration as she prepared to return to Germany to meet her coalition partners ahead of Sunday’s deadline to find a solution to stop flows of asylum seekers arriving from southern Europe. Compared with the most recent years, the European Union does not currently face a large external migration problem. What it undoubtedly faces, however, is a large internal political problem about such migration. Monthly irregular arrivals into the EU from the Middle East and Africa have actually fallen like a stone since 2015. In May this year they were down 96% from their October 2015 peak. Depending on events, 2018 is currently on course to see the lowest irregular migrant totals across the Mediterranean for four years. The politics of migration are an entirely different matter. They follow a separate path. Austria and Italy have both elected hardline governments in recent months to join the eastern bloc of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia in resisting refugees and opposing any EU quota system. Germany’s coalition government is also under huge internal pressure to take a much tougher approach than in the past. Seen from Britain, the June 2018 EU summit in Brussels was supposed to be a milestone in the Brexit process.

In reality, the EU council barely debated Brexit at all. There was a brief speech on the first evening by Theresa May, and a discussion among the 27 of this month which generated an even briefer, though notably bad-tempered, communique. The difficult Brexit issues have all been postponed. Instead, the issue that forced the 28 national leaders to argue among themselves until dawn on this month was not Brexit, but migration. It was very important that the EU struck its deal this week. Failure to do so would have signalled the union’s impotence in the face of external migration and of the politics that this migration has thrown up in almost every member state. It might also have brought down Angela Merkel’s government, leading to a power vacuum within the EU on the eve of Donald Trump’s hostile and troublemaking visit to Europe next month, and perhaps also triggering a domino process of national border closures that would have brought the Schengen free travel area to its knees.Whether the deal will last, or will work, or will begin to draw the sting of the migration issue are all profoundly doubtful, however. It is very hard to be confident that any of these things will happen. The summit communique may say that the issue is one for Europe “as a whole”, but the practical reality is that differences were papered over, not resolved. The EU’s much-vaunted principles of solidarity were conspicuous by their absence in words of studied vagueness. Crucially, the 28 were as unwilling as ever to share the impact of refugees.

Italy’s demands got nowhere because of blanket central European objections (backed by Britain). Instead Italy’s grievances were ultimately bought off by a voluntary system of new control centres in those countries willing to allow them, in which the claims of rescued migrants would be processed. There were, though, few details and the position of humanitarian NGOs was ignored. Amid all the wrangling over an EU deal on migration, you’d think the number of refugees and migrants entering Europe was surging: it’s not. While over a million arrived on European shores in 2015, last year it was only 172,362; this year, fewer than 43,000 so far. But the real figure that matters is 12,397. That’s the number of recorded deaths between January 2014 and February 2017 of children, pensioners, men and women who spent their last minutes writhing in the sea as the Mediterranean’s waters entered their lungs. And responsibility for these deaths lie squarely with the European leadership.This is not to absolve Britain: our nation has taken in desperately few refugees, and the official leave campaigns made the cynical decision to fan bigotry and racism during the EU referendum. But what the EU’s leaders (Theresa May included) have done is abominable, and is not commented on nearly enough. Last year, an Amnesty International report declared that the soaring death toll in the central Mediterranean was “clearly linked to failing EU policies. The decision in April 2015 to strengthen search and rescue had hugely decreased the death toll, but it was “short-lived”, they noted. Instead EU governments adopted a disastrous strategy of disrupting smugglers and stopping boats leaving Libya.

Those responsible for preventing crossings were the reckless Libyan coastguard service, which used dangerous and indeed fatal manoeuvres. The result of all this? A threefold increase in death rates in 2017 compared with the second half of 2015. European states have progressively turned their backs on a search and rescue strategy that was reducing mortality at sea in favour of one that has seen thousands drown,” Amnesty declared. Worse still, the EU strategy of keeping refugees and migrants in Libya has meant looking away as the authorities of a failed state continued to abuse, torture, extort, enslave and rape those fleeing misery, dictatorship and war. The EU signed an agreement with Turkey a nation with a terrible human rights record to send refugees back there. In turn, Turkey has driven Syrian and Iraqi refugees back to their war-ravaged nations. In nations such as Italy, Hungary and Poland, the political leaders owe their power partly to stirring up bigotry against some of the most desperate human beings on Earth. The deal last night means that the EU will have an even less humane policy, with migra1nt centres or as others might call them, prisons  established to house new arrivals. And they will get away with it because the humanity of migrants and refugees has been comprehensively stripped away. There are many migrants and refugees alive now who will die in the coming weeks and months. And the current EU leaders should be held responsible for that.

The response to Mrs Merkel’s insistence that all member states should commit to take all necessary internal legislative and administrative measures to prevent refugees from heading across internal EU borders in order to get to Germany is equally problematic Though Greece seems willing to work with Germany on this, it is unlikely that Italy, in particular, will do what Berlin wants. Relief for the German chancellor may not last long, especially if Mr Trump, who has Germany in his sights over trade and military spending, has his way. The leaders backed plans to put more money and resources into external border controls and agreed to create processing centres outside Europe. But it remains to be seen whether these commitments are bankable or effective. This was a very fractious summit on a deeply divisive issue, and it may signal a more fractious EU, not an EU that has pulled back from the brink. Italy’s attempt to block every single summit conclusion on every subject unless its migration control demands were satisfied may have gone down well among anti-migrant Lega voters back home. But it signalled that, if this is a fortress Europe, it is a fortress full of faultlines. Italy wants to tear up the first-country principle, but the French president, Emmanuel Macron, said he did not want to change the rule, setting the stage for more confrontation over the overhaul of EU asylum rules, a process that has stalled after two years of talks. Central European countries claimed they had buried the idea of mandatory refugee quotas for all EU countries.

Now everyone has dropped the topic, said the Czech prime minister, Andrej Babiš, hailing that as a a big success. Donald Tusk, the European council president, told reporters in Brussels that it was “far too early to talk about a success. Diplomats were left uneasy about the negotiating method of Italy’s new prime minister, Giuseppe Conte, who pushed the summit to the brink of collapse by threatening to veto the entire summit communique, including unrelated parts on trade. Sweden’s prime minister, Stefan Löfven, added that he used to be a welder and he did not agree with the Italian’s way of making his point, either. Borissov described the Italian threat as unpleasant but conceded that leaders had at best reached a fragile consensus that does not solve the whole problem. Several EU leaders stressed they wanted to work with international agencies who were willing to set up migrant camps in north Africa to process asylum claims. However, a paper released by the UN agency for refugees and the International Organisation for Migration on Friday strikes a different tone. They called for “strong leadership from European Union member states on upholding the right to asylum and the rights of migrants”, while stressing that the EU could not outsource the problem. The agencies say they oppose closed detention centres.

Writer and Columnist