How the human tsunami changed Europe forever
Civil strife sent millions across the Med, spawning the rise of anti-migrant parties and threatening the EU
The kitchen is a rusty metal grill resting on two bricks. The toilet is a patch of waste ground nearby. Just a few hundred metres from Rome’s futuristic-looking Tiburtina railway station, about 300 refugees and migrants live in a squalid encampment of tents and shanty structures made from scavenged timber and sheets of plastic.
Known as the Baobab Centre, this old carpark is one of the main nodes in the underground migration networks that have sprung up across Europe. Baobab hosts the final trickle of a wave of migration from Africa and the Middle East that swept northwards through Europe in 2015, setting off a political chain reaction whose consequences for European unity are only now fully being realised.
The chaos of 2015 led to deep East-West splits, as Hungary and Poland rejected Brussels-imposed resettlement quotas and responded to calls for EU solidarity with metal fences to protect their borders. These longstanding ideological fissures have deepened, reawakening the hard right in Germany and Austria and, most seriously of all for Europe, installing a populist anti-immigrant government in Rome.
In three short years the migration crisis has set off a domino effect that left Angela Merkel, the continent’s main advocate of liberalism, weakened at home and the voices of Eurosceptic populism in the ascendant. For as long as these were confined to the “usual suspects” (Britain, Hungary and Poland) the EU could to some extent rationalise the dissent. But the transformation of Italy, a founder member, changed all that.
Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League, the anti-immigrant party that rules Italy in coalition, surged to power in a country that has absorbed 600,000 migrants from the other side of the Mediterranean in the past two years. About 75,000 came through the volunteer-run Baobab Centre.
Somali Cumar Abdirahman Jamac, 30, said: “This is no life. I’m strong, I want to work, but our [temporary protection] permits don’t allow it. The only things that are left are to beg or to steal, and I don’t want to steal.”
Europe’s fault lines exposed
Within days of taking office, Salvini, Italy’s interior minister, launched an unprecedented crackdown on migration from Libya. He closed Italy’s ports to the NGO vessels that had for years rescued people at sea, and said the days of Italy acting as “Europe's refugee camp” were at an end. “The party is over, the music has changed,” he said, winning popularity in Italy but sending shockwaves through Europe.
Resistance to what some call unauthorised migration but others call the right of people to flee war, persecution and poverty, has spawned a plethora of populist movements and exposed deep political and cultural divisions within Europe. Hungary, Slovakia and Poland are bitterly opposed to taking in migrants, while Spain, Italy and Greece say they are unfairly shouldering the burden.
In 2015, Europe’s Western liberal powers took the unprecedented step of using a majority vote to overrule the (as they saw them) recalcitrant eastern states and force them to accept migrant resettlement quotas. Hungary, Poland and the so-called Visegrad states never accepted the quotas. Instead, populist leaders including Poland’s Jarosław Kaczyński and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán used them as a stick of dynamite to whip up anti-migrant sentiment and deliver huge election victories.
By then, the rebellion had spread. Austria elected a coalition including the far-Right Freedom Party, Merkel was under assault from her Bavarian sister party and the anti-immigrant Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, and Rome fell too. In the north, countries such as Germany and Austria have reluctantly accepted the problem must be contained, although the fight over the Dublin Regulation, which says migrants to Europe must stay in the country they arrive in, remains unresolved.
A broken model
Critics say Europe’s migration model – if it ever existed – is broken. While thousands drowned, those who made it to Europe remained either jobless or were exploited for their labour. The EU responded with messy, ad-hoc solutions, doing legally and morally questionable deals with Turkey and Libya to stem the flow.
To the relief of governments – and the despair of humanitarian organisations – the problem was outsourced.
“The deals with Turkey and Libya can be said to be working,” said Jeff Crisp, a migration expert and a research associate at Oxford University’s Refugee Studies Centre. “But Europe has sold its soul.”
The deals are looking increasingly fragile. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s mercurial president, has in the past threatened to pull out of his country’s €6bn deal. The stakes are high – Turkey is home to 3.7 million Syrian refugees and more than 300,000 Iraqi refugees. More could be on the way: the regime assault on Idlib could lead to a new influx.
“It [Turkey] controls what has been called a weapon of mass migration,” said Crisp, suggesting the EU would find it hard to say no to demands for billions more euros.
Torture, rape and slavery
At least with the Turkey deal, Europe has been able to talk to a relatively stable government. Libya, by contrast, is split between rival governments and dozens of competing militias. Last year’s deal between Rome and the UN-recognised government in Tripoli has led to a sharp drop in the number of boats leaving Libya, by bolstering the Libyan coastguard and buying off the militias involved in trafficking. But that has raised deep moral and ethical issues for Europe as migrants are returned to detention centres where they risk rape, torture and enslavement.
If the money stops, trafficking will swiftly return.
Shifting the problem
Closing one migration route often leads to the opening of another. Blocking passage from Libya to Italy has led to an upsurge in migrants crossing from Morocco to Spain. It raises the question of whether there is any deal stringent enough to keep the desperate from finding their way into Europe.
Adam Osman, 20, from Ethiopia, was rescued in the Mediterranean by the Spanish coastguard. He landed in Sicily and moved to Belgium, but was caught and sent back to Italy under the Dublin regulations. Baking in the heat in the Baobab Centre in Rome, he is determined to get back to Belgium. “I cannot go back to Ethiopia,” he said, adding in a quiet voice: “I’m gay. You can be put in prison for 15 years, or the community will try to kill you.”
Securing Europe’s borders means finding a way to stop the arrivals and in the long term a way to stop people trying to flee in the first place. There are perhaps up to a million Africans in Libyan detention centres.
At a summit in Malta in 2015 the continent’s leaders set up the £3bn Emergency Trust Fund for Africa, intended to discourage migrants from heading to Libya. But there’s a shorter-term goal: to encourage the hundreds of thousands of migrants already there to return home.
A “voluntary repatriation” scheme is being run in tandem with the International Organisation for Migration, a UN body. Those who accept repatriation get a free flight back and the offer of job training. In Nigeria, 3,000 have returned, and planeloads arrive almost every week, says Solomon Okoduwa, an adviser to a task force in one of the main hubs for illegal migration.
“These people have often been exploited, humiliated and beaten up in Libya,” said Okoduwa. “They are usually glad to return home.”
Incentives fail to impress
But job-training offers may not be enough. Those who dreamed of making their fortunes in Europe may find it hard to settle with farming a plot of land in the same neighbourhood they yearned to leave in the first place.
Evans William, 29, sold his possessions to fund his trip to Libya last year. It ended in a detention centre. He said while he was keen to take up training, he had no intention of staying in Nigeria. “I don’t really feel happy here. I want to be in Europe. I see that as my destiny.”
He’s not alone. Crisp said growing access to social media and cellphones meant many were more aware of the opportunities in Europe.
A matter of perception
Some argue the numbers of migrants and refugees who make it to Europe are manageable. About 61,500 have arrived so far this year – half that of 2017, and a trickle compared with the million who came in 2015.
Andrea Costa, a coordinator for volunteers at the Baobab Centre, said the numbers need to be put into perspective. “In the last few years around two million migrants have arrived. But the EU has a population of 550 million. It’s nothing. It’s not a crisis, it’s not an emergency and it’s not an invasion ... we should see migration as an opportunity, not as a threat.”
With the far-right backlash, this is not a popular viewpoint.
Oxfam said: “A better approach is both urgently needed and possible.” In a report, Beyond Fortress Europe, it called for safe and regular pathways for refugees and migrants. The idea was that allowing in a set number of people annually would undermine smugglers and provide migrant labour for countries with an ageing population and a dearth of workers.
But in the current climate it would take a brave leader indeed to put such a policy to voters – witness the political damage incurred by Merkel in Germany when she decided to welcome a million refugees in 2015.
Many countries in Eastern Europe are deeply opposed to accepting especially Muslim migrants. This week, the EU voted to invoke Article 7 against Hungary, which could lead to the loss of its EU voting rights, in part over its treatment of migrants. Also, Europe could not possibly accept all those wanting legal entry, and having regular migration channels could act as a pull factor, encouraging even greater numbers.
Promote development to stop migration
Pumping aid and investment into poor countries in Africa and Asia could create jobs and dissuade people from leaving. But it will take generations, and in the meantime war, poverty, persecution and climate change will continue force people to migrate.
Said Costa: “They may not find a welcome in Europe, but after all they have been through, it’s paradise.”
As it stands, Europe’s future policy is likely to be a messy mix of deterrence, surveillance, economic development and the acceptance of a modest number of refugees. In June, Italy’s new government said the situation was extremely serious. “It’s not only how to manage migration,” said the Five Star Movement, which makes up half of Italy’s coalition. “At stake is the future of Europe as a political community, along with its values.”
– © The Daily Telegraph