In a week’s time, another European summit will attempt to address the ethical and political dilemmas raised by irregular immigration from the Middle East and Africa. Paradoxically, however, there can be no realistic humanitarian action taken unless it’s recognised that the problems are insoluble.
Migrants typically begin their journeys from highly dangerous places. The journeys themselves, across war zones, deserts and high seas, are intrinsically perilous. The penultimate stage, in a transit country, often involves being in the hands of smugglers who recognise no law except brute force.
And the arrivals of massive numbers of migrants in Europe is dangerous, too. The sheer numbers test the absorptive capacity of institutions – of law, infrastructure, welfare, health and education. With the weakening of institutions comes the weakening of social bonds, and a growing sense of the unravelling of political fairness.
People then begin to vote for political parties that substitute bigotry for solidarity – a development itself dangerous not just for migrants but for the idea of free society generally.
It is fashionable to pretend that all these high dangers – apart from those of the journey – can be removed if only the right policies and values were in place. The Human Rights Watch report issued on Monday is typical in insisting that Europe can have rights-based policies that are more effective than the present mess. But the report has no beef, only evasions.
It couldn’t be otherwise. For example, one of the report’s supposedly concrete proposals is for Europe to build up its diplomatic and economic capital so that unsafe countries, sources of migration, can begin to respect rights more.
This proposal completely ignores that, in several such countries, you cannot have respect for basic human rights without a political revolution. Some regimes cannot reform without collapse. And that’s a recipe for more migration in the short term.
But the proposal is glib in other ways. Does anyone really believe that European diplomacy can outweigh Chinese influence and aid in many parts of Africa? Or the influence of the US and Russia in the Middle East?
It’s not happening now. Would anyone care to be specific about the investment required to change the balance of influence?
One proposal currently very popular in Europe is to find a way to push the frontier down south – so that migrant reception centres are located in, say, Libya or Niger. These centres would process asylum applications and reduce the number of people making the life-threatening journey across the sea.
We’re told, of course, that these centres would need to meet strict human rights standards that respect people’s dignity. But such standards aren’t even being met at European reception centres currently.
There’s overcrowding, huge stress on both migrants and personnel, and social problems created by the very presence of the centres. Why should anyone believe that, in Libya and Niger, Europe can meet standards that it is unable to meet in Malta, Italy, Greece and elsewhere?
It sounds much more like outsourcing dangers – out of sight, out of mind – than taking responsibility for reducing them.
Finally, I doubt much will be achieved simply by reforming the current European rules (Dublin II) for deciding who’s responsible for rescued migrants.
The problem is sufficiently real that it is changing the political calculations in Germany as a fundamental choice over migration policy looms close
It’s one of the proposals in the Human Rights Watch report. If implemented it would mean that Hungary and Poland, like every other EU member state, would need to participate in ‘burden sharing’. But, in other reports, HRW also rightly lambasts Hungary and Poland for their human rights abuses, including treatment of migrants.
So are we really proposing to send migrants to countries that may fundamentally deny their rights?
If migrants aren’t sent to such EU states, that would create a perverse incentive, across the Union, to support far-right parties. If migrants are sent to all EU states, however, then some guarantees for their protection need to be given.
In the past, HRW (and others) have suggested that if the populist Victor Orban’s Hungary continues to infringe human rights in the way it is, then Orban’s political party should be expelled from the mainstream European People’s Party.
That, too, has consequences that ought to be calculated well. In the EPP, the unsavoury Orban is surrounded, and to a point restrained, by more mainstream politicians. If he were expelled, would he be weakened or liberated?
It cannot be excluded that Orban would be able to put together a formidable, xenophobic political grouping within the European Parliament made up of parties growing at the expense of mainstream ones – in Italy, France and Germany, as well as in the Nordic countries.
The problem is sufficiently real that it is changing the political calculations in Germany as a fundamental choice over migration policy looms close. Some German Christian Democrats are beginning to calculate that it may be preferable to depose Angela Merkel as their leader, than to risk the further growth of Germany’s far-right opposition.
The momentousness of this decision cannot be overstated. It goes beyond the fate of one politician. It shows a shift in calculus. Up till now, German politicians have always reckoned that it served Germany’s long-term interests to put European interests ahead of short-term German interests. If Merkel is replaced, it would show a shift in how Germany regards Europe.
It might seem that Spain’s new prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, exemplifies a countervailing tendency. One of his first actions was to give safe harbour to the migrant ship MV Aquarius, refused by Italy.
But Sanchez is no exception to the rule that European politicians are thinking of national votes when acting on migration. Sanchez is the leader of a socialist party much weakened in recent years. His actions on the MV Aquarius were taken with a view to boosting the left-wing vote in the coming general election, and to attract other voters by showing he can take the lead on the European stage.
What he did was laudable. Just don’t expect him to make laudable humanitarian action a habit.
These then are the reasons why I don’t see how significantly safer spaces can be created out of countries of origin, transit countries and European societies. It’s glib to pretend that Europe on its own can make Africa and the Middle East significantly safer, or that it can lead the US, China and Russia by example.
To say that the problem is irresolvable is not to legitimise indifference to the human suffering involved. On the contrary. It’s to say you cannot begin to alleviate even some of that suffering without recognising the inescapable dilemmas.