Can Europe Make It?

Where to now? Governing the migration crisis in the Mediterranean

It is through dialogue, not wars, that Europe can work towards alleviating the humanitarian crisis that is apparent on its shores.

Parvati Nair
8 September 2015
Protest at Palermo port, paper boats on black cloth representing the Mediterranean.

Protest at Palermo port, paper boats on black cloth representing the Mediterranean. Demotix/Lucio Ganci. All rights reserved.As the EU prepares to address the dire shortcomings in the existing governance of migration at the Extraordinary Justice and Home Affairs Council called for September 14, and in the run-up to the High Level Side Event on Migration planned at the United Nations General Secretariat on September 30, it becomes patently clear that governments are rather belatedly gathering around the table to formulate responses to the mounting crisis of migration to Europe.

Migration across the Mediterranean has long been a deadly matter, leading some commentators to refer to the Mare Nostrum as Cementerium nostrum. The difference of late lies in the sheer numbers and in the very mixed flows of those fleeing war, poverty and oppression.

The responses from European governments, too, are very mixed. At present, as Italy and Greece are overwhelmed as receiving points of migration from across the Mediterranean, sharp divisions of hospitality distinguish one wealthy European country from another. Whilst some open borders, other clamp them down, forcing migrants further into illegality. The issues at stake affect many more than those already on European soil.

The numbers of refugees who have entered Europe form only a small proportion of those who are already displaced and making their tortuous ways via Libya, Turkey, Eastern Europe and other routes in search of the elusive European promise of safety, wellbeing and dignity. The recent march by refugees from Hungary to Germany and Austria struck a chord, perhaps because it highlighted the will of the people over the rule of the border. In actual fact, however, that last trek to a new ‘home’ was just one more stage in the very long road those people have undertaken.

There are some important facts that must be taken into account in this context: a condition for positive dialogue amongst global leaders is the understanding that migration is a fact as old as the history of humanity itself. To date, the focus amongst Europe’s leaders on nation, borders and sovereignty eclipses humanitarian concerns, relegating these to citizens rather than people. Migration is the norm, not the anomaly. It is the dynamic that fosters cultures, societies and thought. In this age of globalization, governments regularly govern, support and channel the circulation of goods, capital, commerce and services. Why, then do governments opt for xenophobic blocks to the legal movement of people? To emigrate is a human right. In the scheme of modernity, to which we have all signed up, human migration is an offshoot of the mobility that is inherent in the very ideas of progress and development. For governments to predicate the border and the nation as somehow static and carved in stone is absurd. It is to deny the fluidity of life itself.

Even where there is the will to offer shelter, a strange and disturbing fork emerges in our terminology (and hence ideology), demarcating refugees from migrants. The simple fact is that the flows coming into Europe today are mixed. Certain world leaders (and the media) may favour the term ‘refugees,’ if only because it resonates in our collective post-Holocaust memory and because there is undoubtedly a certain historical and political kudos to be found in the idea of Europe as a place of shelter.

This logic allows the thought of offering hospitality to ‘ migrants’ to be discarded as undeserving by contrast -- or, worse, even exploitative. In reality, there are multiple causes that displace populations and trigger migration. Refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants move shoulder to shoulder along networks and routes to Europe. Moreover, the triggers cannot be reason enough for withholding legal entry. With its ageing population, much of Europe has a sore need for the workforce that migrants provide. Indeed, in light of the market economy of Europe, the latter gains more than these migrants do from their efforts.

Europe must acknowledge the death and the suffering that result from its border paranoia. The EU has spent vast time, effort and funds in fortifying its borders. From the denial of visas, to the role of Frontex and European partnerships with the southern Mediterranean countries, to the ever sharper and ever higher razor fences that it builds, the European obsession with the border as the limit that safeguards the privileges of free circulation within, has fostered multiple forms of illegalities and innumerable deaths.

The vast, and growing, underworld of smugglers and traffickers (at times it is hard, if not impossible, to disentangle the one from the other) thrive off existing European border policies and practices. No one would choose illegal routes. No one would pay a smuggler. No one would choose the obscurity of no legal protection or rights. The impossibility of existing border policies forces migrants to take to these routes.

If the upcoming summits are to be at all fruitful, then our global and regional leaders must understand that for as long as vast global inequalities that relate at once to questions of wealth, wellbeing, freedoms, rights, peace, security and democracy exist between Europe and other parts of the world, there will be both the absolute need and the overwhelming desire to access Europe. Instabilities, oppression and inequalities in the Mediterranean region and, indeed, much further afield, trigger these ongoing waves of migration.

Against this backdrop, global leaders urgently need to respond proactively in the short, medium and longer terms in order to safeguard lives and diminish suffering. As a first step, European leaders would do well to agree a common asylum policy that establishes procedures whereby residency and benefits are on offer equally across European states. Perhaps Europe could look back at that other image of a suffering child that once mobilized response, that of the little girl fleeing napalm in Vietnam, and work towards a resettlement plan that is shared and that takes into account not solely those already in Europe, but also the many more on their way.

It also seems imperative to open legal channels for migrants, so that they do not surrender their safety to the hands of smugglers. A common asylum policy with applications processed along transit routes would enable legal, safe and managed migration into Europe. Whilst this is being implemented, governments must urgently contribute funds to the major agencies, such as UNHCR, that are providing for the basic needs of migrants at present.

In the medium term, European leaders need to engage with governments in Turkey and the Gulf. Whilst Turkey currently hosts large numbers of Syrian and other refugees, the granting of residence and employment rights via visas would enable these people to both contribute positively to local economies, earn a living and be assured of their safety and dignity. The Gulf countries too could engage in settlement programs if the political will were present.

This requires shifting from the navel-gazing approach that it has so long adopted. For summits to be worthwhile and for governance to be credible, what is needed is an approach that is proactive, not responsive, and that acts always through a prioritization of human rights and dignity.   

In the longer term, there is much that remains to be done. The ending of conflicts, greater, more even, development, the establishment of democratic rights are all necessary for wellbeing, security and dignity. It is through dialogue, not wars, that Europe can work towards alleviating the humanitarian crisis that is apparent on its shores. 

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