A recent European Council summit in Brussels was meant to articulate a united policy on the burgeoning refugees and migrant crisis. Instead, it served to highlight the bitter divisions between various European countries.
In response to the summit, several European leaders, including Italy’s Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, went home to speak triumphantly of a “great victory”, achieved through a supposedly united European position.
However, nothing could be further from the truth as Europe remains deeply divided over the issue. In fact, the debate over refugees and migrants have become a source of unprecedented political stability, most notably in Germany. Austria and other countries are also caught in the crisis, each with its own angry constituency to appease.
The truth is that the Brussels summit did not alter a horrific situation. Indeed, Europe is facing the most significant refugee crisis since World War II but all attempts at resolving the issue have failed, mostly because these have ignored the root causes of the problem.
Though the crisis has been unfolding for years, a string of new events has brought it back to the fore. It all started on June 11, when Italy’s new Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, blocked the Aquarius rescue ship, carrying 629 refugees and economic migrants, from docking at its ports.
A statement by Doctors without Borders (MSF), at the time stated that the boat was carrying 123 unaccompanied minors and seven pregnant women. Despite this grim reality, Salvini who also heads the far-right League Party, took a firm stance saying, “From now on, Italy begins to say NO to the traffic of human beings, NO to the business of illegal immigration”.
This was also not an isolated event. From that moment on, Italian policy dramatically changed and the government decided to close its ports to all NGO rescue ships. “They will only see Italy on a postcard”, Salvini said derogatorily, referring to a second boat carrying 224 refugees.
European leaders need to confront the reasons that lead millions of people to leave their home, and fashion honest and humane solutionsRamzy Baroud
That anti-refugees’ sentiment accompanied Italy to the Brussels summit where Prime Minister Conte threatened to “veto” the entire text, unless a true commitment was exacted from the other EU states to help the “frontline” countries.
In the case of the Aquarius, the number of refugees was repeated in news broadcasts time and again, as a mere statistic. In reality, the boat was carrying 629 precious lives, each with a compelling reason why she/he had undertaken the deadly journey.
While the cruelty of refusing entry to a boat laden with desperate refugees is glaring, it has to be viewed within a larger narrative pertaining to the rapidly changing political landscape in Europe and the political and military crises underway in the Middle East and North Africa.
Italy’s new government, a coalition of the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement and the far-right League party, seems determined to stop the flow of refugees into the country, as promised on the campaign trail.
The disturbing truth is this: Europe is accountable for much of the mayhem occurring in the Middle East. Right-wing pundits may wish to omit that part of the debate altogether, but facts will not simply disappear when ignored.
European leaders need to confront the reasons that lead millions of people to leave their home, and fashion equally honest and humane solutions. To better their understanding, they should listen more to the refugees, and a lot less to their opportunistic rightwing politicians.
In Syria, the EU is hardly innocent. In 2011, an uprising-turned-civil-war in Syria led to the exodus of millions of refugees, most of whom are hosted by neighboring Middle Eastern countries. However, many have sailed the sea to seek safety in Europe.
Ahmed is a 55-year old Syrian refugee, who fled the country with his wife and two children. His reason for leaving was no other than the grinding, deadly war.
He told the UN Refugees Agency: “I was born in Homs and I wanted to live there until the end, but this vicious war left us no other choice but to leave all behind. For the sake of my children’s future we had to take the risk.”
“I had to pay the smuggler eight thousand US dollars for each member of my family. I’ve never done anything illegal in my whole life, but there was no other solution.” Saving his family meant breaking the rules; millions would do the same thing if confronted with the same grim dilemma. In fact, millions have.
African immigrants are often blamed for ‘taking advantage’ of the porous Libyan coastline to ‘sneak’ into Europe. Yet, many of those refugees had lived peacefully in Libya and were forced to flee following the NATO-led war on that country in March 2011. “I’m originally from Nigeria and I had been living in Libya for five years when the war broke out,” wrote Hakim Bello in the Guardian.
“I had a good life: I was working as a tailor and I earned enough to send money home to loved ones. But after the fighting started, people like us – black people – became very vulnerable.”
The security mayhem in Libya led not only to the persecution of many Libyans, but also millions of African workers, like Bello. Many of those workers could neither go home nor stay in Libya and they too joined the dangerous mass escapes to Europe.
War-torn Afghanistan has served as the tragic model of the same story. Ajmal Sadiqi escaped Afghanistan, which has been in a constant state of war for many years, a war that took a much deadlier turn since the US invasion in 2001.
Sadiqi told CNN that the vast majority of those who joined him on his journey from Afghanistan, through other countries to Turkey, Greece and other EU countries, died along the way. But, like many in his situation, he had few alternatives. “Afghanistan has been at war for 50 years and things are never going to change,” he said. “Here, I have nothing, but I feel safe. I can walk on the street without being afraid.”
Despite the obvious correlation between western-sustained wars and the EU’s refugee crisis, no moral awakening is yet to be realized. Worse still, France and Italy are now involved in exploiting the warring factions in Libya for their own interests.
“All of Europe has a responsibility to stop people from drowning. It’s partly due to their actions in Africa that people have had to leave their homes,” said Bello. “Countries such as Britain, France, Belgium and Germany think they are far away and not responsible, but they all took part in colonizing Africa. NATO took part in the war in Libya. They’re all part of the problem.”
Expectedly, Italy’s Salvini and other like-minded politicians refuse to frame the crisis that way. They use whichever discourse would guarantee votes while ignoring the obvious fact that, without military interventions, economic exploitation and political meddling, a refugee crisis - at least one of this magnitude - could not exist in the first place.
Until this fact is recognized by EU governments, the flow of refugees will continue, raising political tension and contributing to the tragic loss of lives of innocent people, whose only hope is to survive.
(Romana Rubeo, an Italian writer, contributed to this article.)
Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story (Pluto Press, London). Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter and is a Non-Resident Scholar at Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies, University of California Santa Barbara. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net.