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Opinion Migrants dying at sea used to spark outrage. So what’s changed?

Once upon a time, news that more than 200 migrants had drowned at sea while crossing the Mediterranean would have ignited a worldwide outcry. Not any more. It happened last week, and barely incited a yawn.

The world, it seems, has become inured to these tragedies and moved on. (The death toll for the year so far is more than 1,000.) Or it’s possible that some, especially in Europe, have less sympathy today for the plight of those fleeing their war-torn countries in search of a better life.

That there is an immigrant backlash occurring across the European Union is an entrenched phenomenon. You see it in the rise of populist politicians and anti-internationalist policies throughout the continent. Italy, Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Denmark are among the countries taking a harder line on this front. Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel has had to back down on her open-door policy for the sake of her own political survival.

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It has become arguably the dominant political discussion point of the 21st century in Europe and is sorely testing the EU’s future legitimacy. (Not to mention its overburdened social safety net.) Politicians, mostly on the right, have exploited a growing fear that the flood of new immigrants is exposing the national identity of various countries to long-lasting damage.

The extent to which some so-called progressive countries are going to protect their way of life in the face of the migrant influx makes Donald Trump look enlightened. In Denmark, for instance, the government has designed immigrant neighbourhoods referred to as “ghettos.” Families have “ghetto parents” and “ghetto children.” This is how they are referenced in the media. These “ghetto children” are taken from their parents, as early as the age of 1, for 25 hours a week of instruction in “Danish values” and language, according to a recent report in The New York Times. Parents in these mostly Muslim enclaves who don’t co-operate risk forfeiting their welfare benefits.

Danish lawmakers are in the process of passing into law a group of measures known as the “ghetto package.” One edict being considered: doubling the punishment for crimes committed inside the 25 neighbourhoods classified as ghettos. Other proposals were defeated as too extreme, such as an 8 p.m. curfew for children and teens, a regulation one lawmaker proposed be enforced by accessorizing kids with electronic ankle bracelets.

With the refugee incursion unlikely to stop any time soon, the debate in Europe is likely to only grow louder. The question is whether the more sympathetic attitude Canadians have held about people seeking sanctuary here will persist in light of what is happening in Europe, and – to some extent – in the United States, too. Or will the anti-immigrant contagion spread?

The federal Conservatives have already begun to exploit the issue, hammering the federal government for the situation at the border with asylum seekers. The RCMP has intercepted more than 9,400 so far this year along the Canada-U.S. border, mostly in Quebec. Many of Toronto’s shelters are full to overflowing with people waiting to have their claims processed.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford recently withdrew his province’s support for the resettlement of refugees, saying the federal Liberals created the “mess” with its open-arms agenda, so they should cover the associated costs, not the provinces.

There will be a lot of people who support Mr. Ford’s hardened position.

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But with the United States an increasingly unfriendly destination for those fleeing violence and persecution, Canada could become an even more popular terminus, especially for those escaping danger in Central America.

After meeting with Mr. Ford, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau doubled down on his government’s commitment to giving asylum seekers a fair hearing and migrants, over all, a pathway toward a brighter future.

“Canadians are generally very positively inclined toward immigration,” the Prime Minister said. “People know that people coming here to build better lives for themselves actually contribute tremendously to our country and to our success.”

Polls in recent years have offered conflicting pictures of just how supportive Canadians are of current immigration levels and the plight of asylum seekers. The situation here is nothing like the one that many parts of Europe have witnessed in the past few years. Were this country ever to be faced with the massive influx of refugees that has been seen in the EU, attitudes could shift radically in an instant.

It wasn’t that long ago that hundreds of migrants dying at sea sparked mass outrage – including in this country. It doesn’t today, and we can only wonder why.

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