By Arab News
By Cornelia Meyer*
Germany this week reached a deal with Spain that would see the Iberian country accept refugees who had entered the EU there before making their way across Europe. Germany hopes to strike similar agreements with Italy and Greece, but will probably not get there. The Greek and newly elected Italian governments will, in all likelihood, not concede.
The Spanish agreement is in line with the EU’s Dublin Principles, which state that the country that first registers an immigrant should take final responsibility for that person. The problem with Dublin is that it was agreed before the big refugee crisis hit Europe and it now seems out of date. Bavarian Prime Minister Markus Soeder never tires of pointing out that German Chancellor Angela Merkel suspended Dublin de facto when she opened Germany’s borders in 2015. Since then, refugees and migrants have been pouring into Europe by the hundreds of thousands every year. The countries on Europe’s southern rim could barely cope.
When the government crisis hit Germany in June, Interior Minister Horst Seehofer demanded that Merkel find a solution within the EU or he would close the border to Austria, which would have been against both the EU’s Schengen open borders agreement and the coalition agreement of the German government. Merkel was dispatched to Brussels to hold two sessions with fellow heads of state. In the end, the EU agreed that the northern countries needed to accommodate their fair share of immigrants. In reality, it looks unlikely that agreement has any legs — at least not as long as countries like Hungary, the Czech Republic and Austria refuse to take people in. Other governments, including France, Holland, Denmark and Sweden, will struggle too because they have right-wing and populist parties nipping at their heels. Some of them will see elections pretty soon.
Immigration has been the hot topic during the hot summer of 2018, preoccupying many governments. During the course of this year there has been movement, but not for the better. Austria’s government has taken a more vigilant stance under Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and his right-wing coalition partners. Malta has dug its heels in, not even allowing refugee ships to dock. In March, there was the case of the Open Arms, a ship rescuing refugees from Libya and whose crew refused to turn them over to the Libyan coast guard. It was sequestered by the Italian authorities and finally released in April.
There was also the case of the Aquarius, which had roughly 600 refugees on board and was alternately turned away by Italy and Malta. After a long odyssey, the new Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez finally allowed the Aquarius to dock in Valencia.
This is the latest instalment of the refugee drama. In terms of numbers, the flow of people crossing the Mediterranean has abated somewhat. Sea arrivals reached a peak in 2015, when roughly one million tried to cross into Europe. That dropped to 360,000 in 2016 and 172,000 in 2017. As of Wednesday, 59,000 had made it to Europe via the Mediterranean this year. In terms of fatalities, the situation looks grim. At the height of migration in 2015, nearly 3,800 people died. This year we are seeing the lowest volume of refugees, yet 3,100 deaths have been recorded.
What has happened? More and more countries are closing their borders. The North African states lack the institutional capabilities to deal with or accommodate the flow of refugees, but European countries try irrespectively to arrive at Turkey-style agreements with the likes of Egypt, Tunisia and Libya (the Egyptian government has so far been the most vociferous in expressing no interest in such a deal). In the meantime, traffickers have become ever more reckless and use lower quality vessels, which will never make the crossing. They bank on navies and humanitarian ships to pick up their “human cargo” — for they have no regard for refugees as human beings. The humanitarian situation is disastrous to say the least.
Meanwhile, as other routes close, the flow of refugees is going westward. The Balkans route has closed, Greece is all but closed. Italy’s right-wing Interior Minister Matteo Salvini and his Lega party have been elected on a radical anti-immigration platform. So far, Spain’s Sanchez seems to be the only one willing to accommodate refugees. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, 24,000 have entered Spain so far this year (compared to about 28,000 during all of last year). The numbers in Italy have fallen by around 18,000 so far.
Europe should be grateful to Spain for picking up the baton. According to polls, only 3.5 percent of Spaniards see immigration as one of the country’s top three problems. The question is, however, how much longer can this last? It is bound to change, as both the People’s Party and the Ciudadanos prepare to fight local elections next year and the 2020 parliamentary elections on an anti-immigration platform. They are bound to find traction in a country where youth unemployment stands at 39 percent.
Expect the climate toward immigration to become harsher throughout Europe over the coming months and years. Meanwhile, expect the human suffering to go on unchecked and without pity. It is vital that the EU and Europe as a whole find a solution to equitable burden-sharing. It cannot be that the economically weaker countries on the southern periphery bear the brunt of the problems. It can also not be that Europe, which espouses lofty ethical and humanitarian principles, turns a blind eye to the scale of human suffering on its southern borders. One thing is certain: As long as there are conflicts, civil wars and a lack of economic prospects to the south, the issue of migration to Europe will not go away.
*Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources