As politicians wrangle behind closed doors, the MV Lifeline is in limbo.
The Lifeline is a rescue ship that picked up 234 migrants off the Libyan coast last week. Normally it would have docked in Italy. But Italy’s new hard-line government turned it away. No one wants the passengers, who are mostly young African men. Italy’s new Interior Minister, Matteo Salvini, has already threatened to deport hundreds of thousands of migrants unless Europe gets serious about sharing the burdens of intercepting and processing them. Last week, he posted a video on his Facebook page in which he called the passengers of the Lifeline ”human meat.”
Attitudes have hardened on migration across Europe – not only in Hungary and Poland, which have had little tolerance for foreigners, but also in France and even tolerant Sweden. The top two issues in most countries are immigration and terrorism, pollsters find. Experts can lecture all they want about how immigration, terrorism and crime are really pseudo-problems, whipped up to serve the interests of the populists. But the truth is that Europe’s leaders have failed miserably to come up with any common solution to the migration problem. That’s why support for national populists is rising and why centre-right parties are shifting farther right.
The absolute numbers of asylum seekers have fallen dramatically since 2015 – the year of the great surge to Germany. Even so, as the Financial Times says, “The impact of migration on European politics has become truly poisonous.”
In Sweden, the once-shunned anti-immigrant right is heading for a breakthrough in September’s elections. In Germany, Angela Merkel’s job is in jeopardy if she can’t manage to placate her coalition partners in Bavaria, the Christian Social Union, who are being challenged by the far right. They’re threatening to close the borders if they don’t get new assurances on immigration – a move that would be a devastating blow to the European Union’s open-borders policy.
Anti-immigration sentiment in Germany is also fuelled by violent crime. Recently, a young Iraqi man was apprehended for the violent rape and murder of a 14-year-old German girl – a graphic reminder to many people that the government can’t control who is living within its borders. “The government should beg for forgiveness from Susanna’s parents, ” said Bild, a popular daily newspaper.
Ms. Merkel is pushing for a common approach and united solutions to Europe’s migration problems. But that’s looking like a lost cause. The idea of “burden-sharing” – which would require every country to take its fair share of asylum claimants – has been a flop, because countries such as Hungary and Bulgaria believe their fair share is zero. Asylum claimants themselves are only interested in going to northern countries with good welfare benefits. Other ideas involve massively beefing up policing of Europe’s external borders – if only they can figure out who will pay and what will become of the migrants who are intercepted. The Italians are now proposing “reception centres” – perhaps located in Europe, or perhaps North Africa, where people can be housed (or detained, depending on your point of view) while their claims are processed.
None of these solutions address the bigger problem, which is that there is today a near-infinite supply of both economic migrants and asylum seekers, that the distinction between the two can be somewhat arbitrary and that hundreds of millions of people in the most decrepit and dysfunctional places on Earth are now equipped with cellphones that allow them to see how the First World lives. Africa’s population, now about 1.25 billion, is expected to double by the year 2050. That’s a lot of overloaded dinghies.
Even in the case of genuine refugees – of which the world has some 62 million at the moment – it’s clear that the the welcome mat has grown thin. The reality is that the post-Cold-War paradigm doesn’t work any more. The 1951 Refugee Convention “was never designed for huge masses of people outside of the West,” writes political scientist Ivan Krastev in his penetrating book, After Europe. His message: Don’t blame the far-right fringes for Europe’s discontent. Blame the oblivious elites. “The inability and unwillingness of the liberal elites to discuss migration and contend with its consequences, and the insistence that existing policies are always positive sum (i.e., win-win), are what make liberalism for so many symbolic with hypocrisy,” he writes.
Can liberalism survive the challenge? We’ll find out. Meanwhile, another refugee ship is adrift on the Mediterranean, looking for a place to land. There will be many more.