The Road to Europe

Written by Nicholas Barrett on . Posted in Current events, Current profiles, Events, Profiles, Uncategorized

Triandafyllidou_opinionSince the Arab Spring started in 2010, those living in the countries around the edge of Europe have endured unprecedented levels of political and economic uncertainty that has, across the region, resulted in bloodshed and instability. As violence escalated in North Africa and the Middle East, populist anti-immigration rhetoric has steadily proliferated throughout Western European politics in the wake of the Eurozone debt crisis. This has created a political landscape hostile to any kind of pro-immigration legislation and fostered a desire for each country to protect its own narrow economic and social interests.

These two factors are converging to brew a perfect storm in the Mediterranean sea, where Europe’s liberal values are being tested like never before. The Italian navy is waning under the pressure and the EU border agency Frontex, is stepping in to replace their costly search and rescue missions, which have so far saved approximately 150,000 lives at sea. But Frontex cannot rescue refugees in international waters and there is now a political justification for not doing so.

The UK government faced strong criticism in October after suggesting that the Italian rescue operations had created an “unintended pull factor” that encouraged people to seek asylum in Europe. Many dispute this, citing conflict as the reason for migration while condemning the alternative, which appears to simply consist of allowing refugees to drown in the sea. So what should Europe do?

One person looking for an answer is Professor Anna Triandafyllidou, director of the Cultural Pluralism Research Area at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies. Triandafyllidou is organising a conference on “the Lampedusa Dilemma” and has been watching the issue closely. “the Mare Nostrum operation is certainly not encouraging people to risk their lives.” she tells EUI Times. “People are fleeing poverty, destitution as well as war, violence and insecurity in general. They have very good reasons to leave and certainly they do not prefer to. They would rather stay at home with their loved ones than die in the Mediterranean.”

Ending the Italian operation, named Mare Nostrum, would almost certainly lead to the loss of many more lives, but the mission also leaves the Italian taxpayer and navy shouldering the weight of those displaced everywhere between Benghazi, Asmara and Mosul. To make matters worse, the Italian Prime Minister Mateo Renzi, not unlike most Mediterranean leaders, is already under sustained international pressure to drastically cut state spending. But Triandafyllidou describes Mare Nostrum as the “right medicine for Europe’s southern borders’ condition” and believes it should be supported by a greater sense of continental solidarity.

Triandafyllidou also worries that our perceptions of people from North Africa and the Middle East have been obscured by negative assumptions inflated in the press. Not only do these assumptions erode compassion for migrants, but they also undermine the free movement of people within the EU itself. “There is” she says “a climate of fear towards settled migrants in Europe, particularly when they are Muslims.”

“The media” Triandafyllidou argues, are known to “anchor any piece of news to long standing frames of interpretation. So the fact that a handful of young European converts go to fight with ISIS and apparently are among the blood-thirstiest of all fighters there, is communicated as a symptomatic symbol of the fact that all Muslims are deep down inside fanatic, and potential extremists.”

To reverse the flow of migrants ready to risk their lives to get to Europe, is probably beyond the control of any one power. The southern countries of Europe must deal with the initial flow while the northern countries find themselves as the preferred destination for hundreds of thousands of migrants every year and even while this is going on, Tunisia and Egypt must stretch their resources to accommodate those waiting to pass. The Lampedusa dilemma, it appears, is much bigger than any one island or one country.