Italy’s nationalist leader faces sharp criticism from European Union (EU) partners over blockade of migrant boats off Italy.
The Spanish aid ship Open Arms, picked up about 150 migrants on August 1, off the coast of Libya and has been waiting ever since to dock on the southern Italian island of Lampedusa in Sicily. Last month on July 7, a second boat carrying about 40 refugees docked in the port, just a couple of days after another boat with a similar number was docked. The boats have been stranded in the Italian waters, just outside the Lampedusa harbour, following the orders of Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and interior minister, who is also the leader of the far right Northern League Party, a member of the odd-couple coalition with leftist populists.
The captains of both the boats, operated by NGOs working to ease the conditions of African migrants stranded in Libya or even rescue them mid-sea in the Mediterranean, claimed that they had to ignore the orders of the government against docking as the conditions aboard had become unbearable in the absence of food and water.
The French government promptly criticised Italy for ‘acting hysterically and failing to live up to its duties towards migrants’. The German interior minister also wrote to his Italian counterpart, asking Salvini to rethink his anti-migrant policy saying that EU could not stand by and watch migrants stuck in the seas because they could not find any port where they could dock.
The incidents and the reactions of the two EU heavy weights have put the focus again on the controversial issue of migration and the fate of countries like Italy and Greece, and to a lesser extent of Spain, in face of continued influx of migrants.
The EU is bitterly divided on how to handle migration, with the absence of a common policy that would be acceptable to all the 28 members. While the central European nations like Hungary and Poland have governments that are stridently anti-migrant and have indeed closed off their borders to refugees, despite criticism from other member states, the western nations have a more tolerant attitude over the issue.
But the Italians and the Greeks feel that the rest of the community has abandoned them. And they are not completely off the mark here. Italy’s ties with France have been rocked frequently over the last few years over the issue of refugees as even though France wants Italy to open its doors to refugees, it has itself sealed its own border with Italy, in flagrant violation of the EU policies and the Schengen treaty that calls for a borderless Europe. Often, the Italian and French police have clashed at the borders as the French push back migrants stepping into France. There have also been incidents of deaths of migrants desperate enough to enter France through the dangerous Alpine routes.
To the consternation of Italians, even the Germans have made a complete U-turn on the issue of refugees from the time about five years ago when chancellor Angela Merkel opened the borders of the country and allowed nearly 1.5 million refugees in 2015, leading to a severe backlash from the German society and the rise of nationalist and populist parties. Many blame Merkel’s open door policy for the rise of the ultra-nationalist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party, which is now amongst the five biggest parties in the German parliament. It also has members in all the 16 regional parliaments in the German states or Laden.
The refugee policy is also blamed for the fall in the popularity of Merkel’s CDU party, which has struggled to keep its hold over the federal government and took several months before a coalition could be formed after the last elections two years ago. The French government is also in a similar boat as the last elections to the European Parliament saw the extreme-right wing Nationalist Party of Marine Le Pen emerging as the biggest winner, ahead of even President Emmanuel Macron’s Liberal Party.
With the Franco-German engine that drives most of the EU policy in a limbo over the migrant policy and the opposition to admitting refugees still on the rise across many other EU member states, migration promises to remain at the top of the list of political and societal issues here, even though the number of migrants entering the EU is no where near the highs of 2014-16, notably due to the ebbing of the war in Syria and the defeat of the Islamic State.
Unfortunately, for the EU and indeed the refugees, there are other causes and other wars that are keeping the migrant flow alive. Increasing conflict and civil wars in several western and central African nations, including Sudan, Mali, Democratic Republic of Congo and even Ethiopia, has led to thousands of civilians fleeing to safety of the European coasts, even at a grave risk of their leaky boats capsizing in the Mediterranean.
So far, the EU has managed to keep a large number of potential arrivals at bay in Libya. However, this has come under sharp criticism from human rights groups as a double-speak and violation of basic human rights and even of the EU’s own constitution. With the renewed conflict in Libya, the crisis of the EU’s ‘outsourced refugee camps’ in the country are likely to see yet another mass of humanity move across the Mediterranean Sea.
The refugee crisis could also be fuelled by climate change and global warming as heavy floods or severe drought drives thousands from their farms and villages across Africa to the promise of safety and prosperity that Europe holds for most of the refugees. The EU needs to develop a coherent policy that not only takes care of the EU’s own political and social concerns, but also does not turn a blind eye to the plight and imminent danger that most of the migrants face before they decide to abandon their homes. Unfortunately, that humane touch seems to be missing on both the southern boarders – of the United States and here in the EU.