Europe faces a “welcoming crisis” when it comes to migrants and refugees. It’s not fair.

“Anti-migrant sentiment is at fever pitch.” Seeing ourselves as others see us.

By Raouf Farrah and Robert Muggah

Published in Open Democracy

In an era of intense geopolitical turbulence and polarization, few issues have more unnerved Europeans than the “migration crisis”. Yet few topics have been more distorted. In less than a decade, the debate on migration has shifted from one of economic necessity to existential threat. Ultra-right populists and once fringe political parties are partly to blame. Regional hysteria is amplified by the steady drumbeat of media headlines (e.g. “Europe is on the brink” or “The EU is swarmed by a migration crisis”). Not surprisingly, anti-migrant sentiment is at fever pitch.

Today, Europe´s “migration crisis” is code for Africans, Middle Easterners and Central Asians crossing the Mediterranean. But is Europe really facing a “crisis”? The numbers suggest otherwise. There were roughly 110,000 refugees and migrants who entered Europe by sea in 2018. This compares to around 172,000 in 2017 and 362,000 in 2016. In fact, the number of new arrivals has fallen dramatically. Today Europe – the world´s wealthiest continent – receives a tiny percentage of the world´s asylum seekers.

A considerable proportion of Europeans still falsely believe they are shouldering an outsized burden of the world’s migrant and refugee population. Owing to the dramatic surge of asylum seekers and economic migrants in 2014—2016, the debate on migration within the European Union (EU), especially among Central and Southern European countries, has turned toxic. It is amplified by irresponsible news coverage and a once fringe vanguard of reactionary nationalists. From Italy and Hungary to France and the UK, xenophobia and racism are on the rise – much of this directed at new arrivals.

Fearful of a political backlash, EU countries have taken dramatic steps to reduce migrants and refugees crossing the Mediterranean from seeking opportunity and sanctuary in Europe. A rash of hard-line policies, including border control programs and bilateral security agreements have encouraged nations around the Mediterranean to lock their gates and throw away the keys. In Italy, national authorities have adopted heavy-handed programs to stop migrants from reaching its shores. The Italian parliament approved the deployment of hundreds of troops to Niger, Libya and Tunisia to bolster migration controls.

Under the terms of said deal, Italy agreed to train, equip and finance the Libyan coastguard as part of its effort in turning back migrant vessels. This was justified by European officials as a “transfer of responsibilities” to their Libyan counterparts. Yet privately, everyone knows that Libya is the last place migrants and refugees will find safe harbor. People are not only dying while trying to make the treacherous crossing, but trapped in abusive detention centers where torture, extortion and rights violations are widespread.

The EU has aggressively pushed out its anti-immigrant border defenses to North African shores and deep into the Sahel. Alongside programs in Libya, it has nudged the Nigerian government into adopting legislation that criminalizes people smuggling. The EU´s Trust Fund for Africa has effectively installed a double iron wall to keep migrants outside the gate, exacerbating the challenges of migration and fueling greater instability in the long term. The chief problem is that such measures criminalize migrants while leaving underlying causes of migration and forced displacement unaddressed.

The consequences of externalizing border control measures across North Africa and the Sahel are devastating. It has triggered harsh new restrictions on the freedom of movements for cattle-herders, truck-drivers and business people all across the entire region. It has also contributed to the opening of new and more dangerous human trafficking routes. Lured by rising profits, a growing number of non-state armed groups and criminal enterprises are getting involved in the anti-smuggling industry.

Attitudes toward migrants are hardly much better south of the Mediterranean. North African governments are hostile toward so-called Haragas, the “Border Burners” who are fleeing out of desperation and lack of hope. Roughly 60 percent of North Africans are under the age of 30. Roughly one third are unemployed and few of them see opportunity at home. Violent crackdowns, mass incarceration and systemic exclusion hasten their departure. The promise of an alternative future – the possibility of self-betterment – is what drives many to migrate.

Europe is not so much suffering a “migration crisis” as a “welcoming crisis” fueled by naked self-interest and decaying solidarity. The tragically common images of drowning migrants washing-up on European and North African shores and refugee families interned in sub-zero temperatures capture the decline of hospitality. Notwithstanding occasional outbursts of moral indignation, there are few open hands to greet the “other”. Instead, migrants and refugees are more often met with a closed fist.

Nations above and below the Mediterranean are alternating between outright hostility and apathy. There are some notable exceptions. Take the case of the massive welcoming of more than 890,000 asylum seekers by Germany between 2014 and 2015. Or consider the more than 126,000 refugees accepted by Sweden over the same period. And there are many historical examples as well, including the welcoming of hundreds of thousands of Algerians seeking jobs and economic opportunities by France during the 1970s. Yet today such openness seems more the exception than the rule.

The “welcoming crisis” is affecting the ability of relief organizations to save the lives of migrants. Consider the case of the Aquarius, a humanitarian vessel run by Médecins Sans Frontières and SOS Méditerranée committed to rescuing migrants on the move. Last June, after the vessel saved 629 migrants off the Libyan coast, they were denied access to ports in Italy and Malta. Under intense pressure from Italy, Panama recently deflagged the Aquarius. Meanwhile, the EU has dramatically ramped-up the criminalization of search-and-rescue operations led by relief organizations.

The criminalization of humanitarian relief has lethal consequences. Most obviously, a growing number of migrants and refugees are dying at sea. The figures are literally breathtaking: roughly 1 person dies for every 18 people who make the passage safely. More than 17,000 people reportedly perished while trying to cross the Mediterranean since 2014. The numbers are very probably higher since many bodies go missing and are unrecorded. This September, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) warned that the already weak Mediterranean rescue capacity was about to deteriorate further still. This is the real migration emergency.

The welcoming crisis is not for lack of knowledge or expertise. The EU has the highest per capita levels of education and income in the world. Instead, the crisis is a sinister consequence of wilful blindness and calculation. Citizens consciously avert their gaze while governments carefully isolate and reverse “undesirable” migrant flows. It is shored up not just by military, police and walls, but also a network of detention centers, internment camps, prison facilities, and waiting zones across the Mediterranean rim. In Libya alone, there are some thirty detention centers where migrants and refugees are living in inhuman conditions.

Europeans show no sign of backing down. EU governments are increasingly conditioning their development aid to the region to curb migration, e.g. Tunisia and Morocco which received E20 million from the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa to dramatically ramp-up border control and management. Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, is also tightening border control and restricting access to Europe. The goal is to continue pushing out border controls into North Africa and the Sahel, including by recruiting more than 8,400 new border guards by 2020. The EU has already spent some  €15.3 billion to control migrants in third countries since 2015.

Hard as it is to imagine in the present political climate, there are ways to reverse the welcoming crisis. At the very least, the EU urgently requires a fair migration framework in which states uphold the right to asylum for those who are most in need. The Dublin Regulation, which sets out the procedures for asylum applications in the EU, still operates under the “first-country-of-arrival” rule. In other words, asylum seekers have to register their claim in the first country they enter which is why Greece, Italy and Spain are disproportionately impacted.

At a minimum, the Dublin Regulation needs to be strengthened so that the system is more transparent, the burden better shared, and emergency situations more effectively addressed. A new Dublin IV proposal offers positive steps in the right direction. It underlines the importance of solidarity and responsibility and also distinguishes migration and refugee arrivals according to “normal”, “challenging” and “severe” crisis circumstances. Even so, the Dublin IV proposal is not yet being enforced, owing to continued disagreements among EU members.

At the international level, the UN Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and Global Compact on Refugees are steps, albeit imperfect ones, in the right direction. They urge governments to ensure that all migrants, regardless of their legal status, have access to adequate protection and assistance. While coming under criticism for not going far enough, the Global Compacts could help catalyze a renewal of solidarity and the sense of fairness for which Europeans were once known.

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