At the European Council today, immigration policy is once again on the agenda. Italian prime minister Enrico Letta has put forward a number of plans for immediate implementation including cooperation between EU countries in patrolling the Mediterranean, EU offices in transit countries like Libya to deal with asylum requests for the whole of the Union (and presumably Norway and perhaps Switzerland) so that potential refugees would not have to risk their lives on the crossing and, from Italy’s point of view, would not have to be processed in Italy. Cecilia Malmstrom, the EU Internal Affairs Commissioner agrees that this is the Commission’s agenda too. Italy also wants European financial support for the burden of dealing with asylum-seekers.
There is no doubt that asylum-seekers who arrive in the EU through Italy are the most dramatic and come with a terrible cost in human life but large numbers come from Russia and Serbia and most Afghans (the biggest single group in 2012) do not come in through Lampedusa. In absolute numbers, Italy does not have the most. And when it come to those who are granted asylum, it is Germany that takes the lion’s share at 23.2% with France (18.3%) and Sweden (13.1%) following and Italy taking 5.2% or around 17,000, the same as Austria with an eighth of Italy’s population.
There is a confusion over the issues – humanitarian, economic and social.
In the days after 3 October sinking which cost more than 360 lives, there was a host of polemical articles most of which missed the point in the horror of the tragedy.
On the one side there was Magdi Cristiano Allam in the Berlusconi family's Il Giornale. Allam is a former immigrant himself and convert to Chistianity. The headline said it all Basta con le ipocrisie gli immigrati ormai sono un lusso (“Enough hypocrisy; immigrants are a luxury by now”), an article which was extraordinarily full of venom, out of place as the coffins were being lined up in Lampedusa and out of place given Allam’s own welcome in Italy (and his new Christian or old Muslim obligations of charity).
On the other side was the invitation from a Milanese immigrant NGO to a demonstration in piazza del Duomo under the banner “BASTA MORTI NEL MEDITERRANEO! DIRITTO DI ASILO E ACCOGLIENZA PER TUTTE/I!” Enough deaths in the Mediterranean. Asylum and welcome for all”. In a Europe just coming out of recession and with a rising populist right, “asylum for all” would be a policy disaster.
Another confusion was in the government initiative to increase Navy and Coast Guard patrols which sent a mixed message to Italians (“we are protecting you from the immigrant invasion… but at the same time, we will stop future disasters”) which convinced no one and an unequivocal message to the traffickers (“whatever rustbucket you use, help will be close at hand”) which they immediately acted on and sent a whole fleet of unseaworthy craft heading towards Lampedusa and Malta.
The issues reminded me of a psychological test once used to gauge a patient’s values.
The central figure is a woman who lives by a river; the other five characters are the husband, the lover who lives on the other side of the river, a friend, a boatman and a bandit who stalks the bridge and kills anyone who passes. The woman takes the ferry to see her lover but when it is time to go home, she realises that she has no money for the ferry. Neither lover nor friend will give her the money and the boatman does not take credit. She takes the bridge and is killed. What order do you put the responsibility for her death?
To give the responsibility an order, each one of us has to create back-stories for the characters and make our own decisions about the relative importance of legal responsibility and human solidarity as well as the relative weight of the woman’s links to husband, lover and friend.
So with the migrants.
An adult who entrusts his or her life (and that of an infant child) to a criminal trafficker and an unsafe boat knows the risks. The skipper of the boat is clearly directly responsible but while he was earning a few thousand euros for the trip and risking his own life, his bosses back in Tripoli had already taken hundreds of thousands of euros. Then the governments or non-governments in the Horn of Africa or Syria are responsible for making life so dangerous and impossible that anything is better. At the Italian and end, there is a responsibility in the 2002 Bossi-Fini law which regulates immigration and above all Roberto Maroni’s 2009 decree law which makes irregular immigration into Italy a crime; this discourages other boats from intervening. Further along the causal chain are the longterm European responsibilities in the instability which makes people seek asylum. The normally pro-European and liberal Barbara Spinelli compared Europe to Sophocles’ Creon ignoring Antigone’s appeal to universal rights.
There are no easy answers to the questions but certainly some of the confusion has been grotesque. A few days after the disaster, prime minister Letta promised a state funeral for the victims; instead most were buried in Sicily with survivors confined to Lampedusa and not allowed to attend and Eritrean authorities invited even though they are part of the problem.
Less serious in media terms but much worse for the longterm management of the issue is the almost complete absence of distinction made between asylum-seekers (which Italy has a legal obligation to process and then give status and protection to those granted refugee status) and economic migrants. President Napolitano tried to explain that the Lampedusa victims were all would-be refugees and most of them would certainly be given that status. But neither politicians nor media continued the distinction, reverting to a generic “migrant”.
Whatever they are called, they will not go away and whenever there is a crisis combined with an availability of money, the traffickers will move in and find a way to shift those migrants towards Europe.
Today’s Council meeting has not solved the problems but if it can move towards a solution before the next disaster, it will be a start.