The irrational fear of migrants carries a deadly price for Europe
When people rescued from the Mediterranean reach a European port, once they have been screened for security threats and communicable diseases, their own medical needs are at last attended to. For those who have fled Libya, a typical list of health problems might include: cuts and bruises from being beaten; skin burns from the sun or from engine oil in the smuggler’s boat they were crammed into; respiratory infections and stomach conditions from overcrowded and filthy living conditions; complications arising from pregnancy or sexual assault; leg and foot injuries consistent with being thrown from buildings; or severe psychological trauma. These have the same effects on the body and the mind regardless of whether the person experiencing them made their journey because of war, or because they were duped into it by traffickers, or because they were looking for work.
These are the people whom Italy’s is currently treating like chess pieces, by refusing permission for NGO rescue boats to , even though they are the nearest safe havens. He is doing so for specious and self-serving reasons. One of his first acts as minister was to visit Sicily and declare that the island “”; no matter that Salvini is leader of a party – the Lega – that until recently wanted independence for northern Italy partly on the grounds that Sicilians and southern Italians, terroni, were no better than the African migrants he currently heaps opprobrium on. Then, in creating a European political row over the , forced to wait at sea for days before making a , he was trying to strengthen his country’s negotiating hand in Thursday’s .
What is new about this? We have known for years how migrants in Libya are treated: there have been constant accounts of and of black people since 2011, if we care to look. And as far back as 2005, an Italian parliamentary inquiry heard that people in immigration detention centres built at Europe’s request by Colonel Gaddafi were being caught “”. As war and instability in regions neighbouring Europe, in which European powers were often intimately involved, led to a spike in the number of refugees trying to reach the continent, the overall direction of EU policy has been to try to push people back where possible, closing down safe and legal routes to asylum. Governments failed to create a common asylum policy that would have helped frontline nations such as Italy and Greece deal with the impact of the crisis. And the Italian government in power immediately before Salvini’s coalition, run by the centre-left, in Libya and cracked down on NGO rescues, in order to keep migrants from leaving north Africa.
Yet despite these points of continuity, what’s happening today marks a dangerous new development in European politics. Until now, the effort to filter out and deter unwanted migrants from reaching has generally been pursued by politicians of the liberal centre, and part of their justification for doing it is that these unpleasant but necessary policies will stave off a rightwing populist backlash.
Now, as far-right politicians reach positions of power in several countries, their influence is coming to bear. Their aim, rather than to make a perceived problem go away, is to deliberately stoke a sense of crisis and panic, to frame this form of migration as an existential threat to Europe. Salvini has picked this fight and called for reception centres to be set up , even though crossings from Libya have dropped significantly, and when arrivals of rescued migrants are roughly evenly spread between Spain, Italy and Greece. In doing so, he has sought to align himself with other anti-immigrant demagogues such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, and perhaps some conservatives too, such as Austria’s Sebastian Kurz, who recently called for “an against illegal migration” between Italy, Germany and his own country.
This has implications not only for the rights of migrants, but for the shape that our politics will take in years to come. The most extreme of these leaders are trying to use the issue of migration to push a vision of the nation based on ethnic privilege and defined in opposition to racialised outsiders, be they Muslims, or unspecified dark-skinned “migrants” or indeed . This has its parallel in the US, where Donald Trump is using tools established by his predecessors – George Bush set up Immigration and Customs Enforcement (), while deportations – for new ends. His recent declaration, “If you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country”, is a non sequitur unless you see it as a statement of intent about who his “country” is for, and who is to be cast out. In Europe, although the focus has been on new arrivals, the shift to the right has implications for the many thousands of refugees and migrants already in Europe and trying to build new lives.
This context may make Thursday’s summit a , as it will determine who gets to set the future direction of Europe’s policy: will conservatives and populists coalesce into an anti-immigrant bloc, or will liberal centrists such as Macron and Merkel take the lead? It’s vital that the likes of Salvini are defeated, and this is entirely possible, since those nationalists making the loudest noises about migration want contradictory things: Italy wants the EU to adopt a quota system for refugee settlement, while Austria is dead against it; politicians who threaten to close Schengen borders would likely change their tune if the next country along an irregular migration route did it to them, and thousands of people were trapped in their country instead.
But the trouble is that all sides continue to propose policies of containment that treat migrants as undesirable, and in which rights and safety come second. One much-discussed proposal has been the establishment of asylum “processing centres” in north Africa, which would separate the genuine refugees from the others without them having to make boat journeys to Europe. Salvini this week called for reception centres . But for these to be anything other than glorified prisons, there would need to be a genuine commitment from European states to resettle those who met the legal definition of refugees, as well as guarantees of safety and humane treatment that the EU has never been able to achieve.
Macron, meanwhile, proposes “closed centres”, which people would not be able to leave, within Europe – but there is little detail on how these would be any better than the the EU announced in 2015. Neither of these proposals is a substitute for a well-funded, Europe-wide asylum system in which claims are processed quickly and fairly, and all member states do their fair share of the work.
What is lacking – and this holds for the UK, where the main political factions have accepted the anti-immigration premise of Brexit, as much as the rest of Europe – is the argument that migrants’ rights are first and foremost, human rights. That while states may want to shape the way in which people move around the world, they do not have an absolute right to do so, and certainly not when the price is the harm we continue to see at Europe’s borders.
In formal politics, this is usually treated as an outlandish claim, but the proposition is being made every time we do what is within our power to save lives, to push back against the “hostile environments” created by border control, and to find ways to make our communities work together. This needs a political voice too, because if we stick with what’s currently on offer we are left with the choice of repeating past mistakes or taking an even more deadly path.
• Daniel Trilling is the author of Lights in the Distance: Exile and Refuge at the Borders of Europe (Picador)