Anyone following migration stories this month would be forgiven for feeling a worrying sense of déjà vu. On the docks of the Italian island of Lampedusa, exhausted men and women who spent harrowing hours at sea travelling from north Africa were forced to sleep on the quayside. Photographs of a rescue worker hoisting a baby from choppy waters flooded social media timelines. A familiar call for solidarity rose from Rome and Brussels.
All these images echoed the events of 2015, and the years leading up to that summer when more than one million people arrived in the European Union seeking sanctuary from war and hardship. Faced with these parallels, a predictable sense of panic descended on the EU. Italy’s call for burden sharing after more than 2,000 people reached Lampedusa over one weekend in mid-May was forcefully rejected by Austria. When 8,000 people including children swam and sailed from Morocco to the Spanish enclave of Ceuta last week, Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sanchez called it a “serious crisis” and sent in the troops.
Any widespread panic is misplaced, however. While arrivals in some places have tripled compared with 2020, there is no cataclysmic event like the Syrian civil war sending people on the dangerous path to Europe. People are coming from a range of countries for a variety of reasons, and the numbers remain small compared with the crisis years. The increases are largely due to a backlog of people who could not travel last year because of coronavirus restrictions. The surge in people crossing into Ceuta, meanwhile, was spurred by a diplomatic incident between Spain and Morocco, and most people have since been sent home.
Today, the EU is no closer to a comprehensive and humane system for dealing with large numbers of people arriving illicitly on its shores
A more worrying parallel can be found in the reaction of some European nations to such events, with the swift return to old arguments over solidarity showing how little has changed since the bloc descended into rancorous bickering over shared responsibility six years ago. Today, the EU is no closer to a comprehensive and humane system for dealing with large numbers of people arriving illicitly on its shores. A migration pact proposed by the European Commission last September included a mechanism for redistributing new arrivals across the bloc, but countries including Hungary and Poland are fighting it.
Instead of forging a lasting solution within its own borders, the EU has relied on a patchwork of morally dubious agreements with third countries, outsourcing border management to governments with problematic human rights records. And those agreements could crumble at any time. The spat between Morocco and Spain once again showed the perils of relying on partners with their own political agendas. The Moroccan government was angered that a Western Sahara independence leader received medical treatment in Spain and retaliated by temporarily halting their policing of the Ceuta border. This prompted European Commission vice president Margaritis Schinas to insist that no country could “blackmail” the EU, using migrants as pawns.
But the EU’s obvious fear and lack of preparedness has left it wide open for exactly this kind of blackmail. At the end of 2019, after a diplomatic spat with the EU, Turkey’s president Recep Erdogan threatened to renege on a 2016 agreement with the bloc and send 3.6 million people over the sea to Greece. Libya’s leaders have also long sought financial gain by exploiting concerns over migration, and the EU will remain susceptible to such tactics unless it starts to show moral leadership on the issue, rather than blind panic.
And while the events of this month do not yet herald a new influx, another large movement of people is not impossible. There could be many catalysts, including Covid-19, which has worsened living conditions in poorer countries and could exacerbate social tensions and political unrest, forcing people to try to find safer and more prosperous homes for themselves and their families.
If governments fail to heed the wake-up calls coming from Lampedusa and Ceuta this month, a much more uncertain future awaits
The EU must put in place the mechanisms to deal with such an event before it happens. If it fails to do so, there will be widespread consequences. First is the harrowing human toll. The EU’s focus on security and deterrence has already led to great suffering. Thousands of people including children languish in appalling conditions in refugee camps in Greece. Investigations by humanitarian organisations and the media have shown that EU-financed border operations are breaking international law, leading to death and injury. Already this year more than 500 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean, but the increasing dehumanisation of people on the move has created a climate of suspicion in Europe which dulls compassion and fuels division.
Any repeat of the chaotic scenes of 2015 will be quickly exploited by far-right populist and nationalist parties, leading to a breakdown of trust in governments and EU institutions, and a surge in Euroscepticism and political extremism.
On the other hand, a well-managed, unified response under which EU nations calmly fulfil their humanitarian obligations while dealing decisively with rejected asylum claims will show there is nothing to fear from offering sanctuary to those who need it, while deterring those who hope to exploit the system.
But if governments fail to heed the wake-up calls coming from Lampedusa and Ceuta this month, a much more uncertain future awaits.