Europe’s quibbles over numbers leave migrants stranded

Migrants are living in limbo on the French-Italian border. EPA/Luca Zennaro

After heated debate, European leaders agreed to resettle 40,000 of the migrants who have arrived on the shores of Italy and Greece in recent months. A further 20,000 refugees not currently in Europe (mostly Syrians and Iraqis) will also be resettled.

Back in April, Europe’s leaders were keen to take rapid action to address what they saw as a humanitarian emergency. Now, however, it is telling that the issue is on the agenda as a “Security Challenge”. Humanitarian measures aimed at improving the welfare of migrants have been thin on the ground, and are getting thinner.

Humanitarian crisis to security threat

In April, Europe’s leaders proposed to increase the funds available to joint intercept missions at sea and to share refugees among EU member states, as well as establishing channels for the rapid return of migrants to their origin and destroying the boats used for trafficking.

Although the EU’s increased presence in the Mediterranean has brought about a 95% decline in the death rate across the sea, the redistribution of refugees among member states has been blocked by political impasse.

Refugees rest in an Italian train station. EPA/Luca Zennaro

In recent weeks efforts have however been made to push through measures to dismantle smuggler networks, including suggestions about using ground troops in Libya – which the government there seemed less eager to accept.

The news from the latest summit is also that, “structured border zones” will be established in southern Italy to “quarantine” those arriving and deport anyone found to be in Europe illegally or not qualifying for international protection.

Meanwhile, people who have risked it all for a new life are in limbo in Italian train stations and abandoned Greek hotels.

Is this Europe?

Prior to the latest summit, Renzi had been on the offensive, writing passionately: “We want to fight for a set of values, for civility and peace. This is why the European Union was founded … if we ignore them now, while the Mediterranean seethes, and children drown, it is Europe itself that we lose.”

But Renzi’s passion has given way to disgust. Speaking of the quibbling about where the 40,000 will go, he said: “If you are not in agreement about the distribution of 40,000 migrants then you don’t deserve to be called Europe … if this is your idea of Europe, you can keep it.”

Since the special emergency meeting of the Council at the end of April, little has changed in terms of migration to Italy and Greece. According to data from the EU border agency Frontex, over 20,500 travelled across the Central Mediterranean to Italy in May, and 19,000 took the Eastern Mediterranean route to Greece. There they wait for opportunities to move on with their lives in increasingly difficult conditions.

This has been taking place, and increasing in scale, for years. It needs a longer-term vision, not short-sighted haggling over a few 100 or 1,000 here and there.

As long as the EU offers only military controls and return measures instead of safe legal channel and spaces for people to move and be protected, migrants will continue to adapt their routes to more desperate and dangerous places. And without European solidarity and co-operation, as more migrants are seen in limbo in the streets, railway stations and headlines of Italy and Greece the risk of a public backlash against their presence will only continue to grow.