The Italian hosts of the Group of Seven summit did not choose Taormina, Sicily, as the G7 site just because nature and history had made it a pocket-sized heaven on Earth. They chose it also because it has a front-row seat to one of the greatest humanitarian tragedies of the decade – the too-often-fatal migrant crossings across the Mediterranean from North Africa.
The Italians, along with their German backers on the migrants file, had hoped to propel the migration, refugee and hunger crisis to the top of the agenda at the Taormina summit. Rather optimistically, they even invited the heads of government or state of half a dozen crisis-struck African countries, including Niger, Ethiopia and Kenya, to lend some urgency to the G7's African agenda.
No such luck. U.S. President Donald Trump has apparently no interest in the migrants file and it looks like the entire event is being hijacked by security and terrorism issues. As if to prove the point, British Prime Minister Theresa May left the summit on Friday, a day before the G7 was to end, to return to Britain to deal with the aftermath of the Manchester attack, which killed 22 people.
According to the humanitarian charities who have flocked to the G7, the Italian delegation is distraught that their African agenda is floundering. It wasn't even known on Friday whether the Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni would be able to include anything constructive on stemming the migrant and refugee crisis in Saturday's G7 communiqué, which, by definition, is an exercise in consensus. If Mr. Trump and his team balk at making strong statements on migration, the communiqué's humanitarian section will be diluted to the point that it is meaningless, an exercise in hollow PR.
At a G7 press conference Friday morning, just before the official start of the G7 meetings, European Council President Donald Tusk admitted that building consensus on the migration file would be difficult. "There is no doubt this will be the most challenging G7 summit in years," he said, later adding that "the [European Union's] goal has been to at least keep the current level of international co-operation in addressing this [migration] crisis. Whether we succeed or not is an open question."
The G7 leaders will see no rickety boats full of desperate migrants. The waters off the Taormina coast in eastern Sicily were being patrolled by Italian navy frigates – for security reasons, no landings nearby would be allowed (most of the migrant landings happen in southern Sicily, or on Lampedusa, the Italian island halfway between Sicily and Tunisia).
Italy and Greece, two countries under great financial stress, can be forgiven for thinking they are unfairly bearing the brunt of the migration crisis. The Italian interior ministry this week said that more than 50,000 migrants have come ashore so far this year, up almost 50 per cent over the same period last year, and the country is on course to take about 200,000 migrants over the full year. So far, more than 1,300 have died making the crossing. Earlier this week, about 30 migrants, many of them children, died when they fell, or were perhaps pushed, off a criminally overloaded boat that had set off from Libya.
The Italian proposal on migration, refugees and hunger was nuanced. It recognized that migration could not be stopped, nor should it be stopped, given that European economies are depopulating and aging rapidly. But they argued that it could be controlled by reducing the dire political, economic and environmental factors that "push" migrants out of their countries and into dangerous boats.
The Italian plan envisioned an ambitious food-security initiative to prevent hunger or outright starvation in and near the Horn of Africa, where drought and conflict mean that millions are at risk in parts of Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti, Eritrea, South Sudan, Sudan and Nigeria. The plan, of course, would have required the G7 governments to write a big cheque or two. According to humanitarian agencies such as One (co-founded by U2's Bono) and World Vision Canada, the Italian food-security initiative fell "off the table" even before the G7 meeting got under way.
Three more Italian initiatives are, apparently, on life support, though we won't know their fate until the G7 winds up Saturday afternoon. The first initiative called for the safe passage of migrants and refugees, including the issuance of humanitarian visas; the second called for "compacts," or partnerships, that would create jobs and education opportunities in the hardest-hit African countries (Germany was a big supporter of this form of aid); the third would examine ways to confer legal status on migrants.
To be sure, some of the initiatives used to stem migration have proven highly controversial, even brutal. One between the European Union and Sudan included military assistance for "migration management" aid. Another deal reportedly delivered aid to Sudan's notorious Janjaweed militia, which has been involved in the arrests of migrants in Sudan.
EU or G7 aid could, in part, be dismissed as bribing dictators to keep the potential migrants on home turf – former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi effectively paid off Moammar Gadhafi, the Libyan strongman who was killed in 2011, to keep migrant boats on the Libyan beach. But Italy's African agenda went far beyond simple payments. It recognized the sheer complexity of the migration crisis and offered several potential solutions. And now it's falling apart as fighting terrorists, beefing up the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and improving cybersecurity take precedence in Taormina.
Overall, the G7 summit could mark a step backward on the migration agenda; at worst, it will leave the G7 as a whole open to accusations of apathy.
But all is not lost. Germany, host of the G20 summit in Hamburg in July, plans to push its African development plan, and Canada, host of next year's G7 (likely to be held in Quebec), could make development, women's rights and migration its centrepiece themes. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is not Donald Trump. Canada is cited as an example on how to get migration right and Mr. Trudeau might be able to sway the other G7 leaders on this tragic dossier.