For most northern Europeans, spending August on an Italian or Greek beach is an annual ritual. Yet the Mediterranean Sea is a ditch compared to the Indian or the Pacific Ocean. This northern summer, while pale Germans and Brits frolicked on one side, many hundreds of desperate people again crammed into boats on the other, to attempt a perilous journey.
From the southern and the eastern side of the Mediterranean, several thousand migrants have again sought refuge in the European Union this summer. An increasing number have been arriving from Syria, though many come from other troubled nations in the Middle East and North Africa.
As with so many other areas of policy, Europe’s response to the migrants has resembled a dissonant cacophony much more than a unified chorus. At least one EU member state is now refusing to allow migrants entry.
Early last month, a Tampa-style incident played out inside the European Union. Malta, the European Union’s smallest member, refused the freight ship Salamis entry. It was carrying over one hundred migrants. The Maltese government sent warships to intercept the Liberian-registered vessel.
The Maltese government argued that the freighter was in international waters – and that Italy had already refused entry to the boat. They also said that the country's processing centres were full. Malta ordered the captain to return the Somali and Eritrean migrants to Libya, although Tripoli is not a signatory to the Geneva Convention on the Rights of Refugees.
Brussels disagreed with this response. EU home affairs commissioner Cecilia Malmtröm argued that the captain of the Salamis had “fulfilled his humanitarian duties” by picking up 102 migrants. Especially given that, aboard the sinking rubber dingy the Salamis rescued were “four pregnant women, one injured woman as well as a five-month old baby”. She urged Malta to let the migrants disembark.
In the end, Italian prime minister Enrico Letta intervened in the standoff. The Somali and Eritrean migrants were allowed to disembark in the Sicilian city of Syracuse. As a consequence, Italy’s attitude to migrants received praise from abroad.
“Malmström turned up at a pressroom in Brussels to say thanks to Rome,” reported Italian daily L’Unita. “For the first time, Italy received a vote of thanks for its reception of migrants.”
The Salamis Affair comes just two years after own Italy’s refugee emergency, in spring 2011. Then, Silvio Berlusconi’s government set about trying to clear Italian territory of migrants fleeing the aftermath of the Arab Spring.
Rome deported planeloads of Tunisians back home, amid ongoing political strife. It encouraged others to travel on to France, violating the EU’s migration agreement, Dublin Two, which is based on the principle of first country processing.
However, under PM Enrico Letta and his patron, President Giorgio Napolitano, Rome has signalled a new approach to the reception of asylum seekers.
In mid-August, after Sicilian beachgoers helped the Italian coast guard rescue 180 migrants off Syracuse, Napolitano publically praised the efforts of the rescuers, says Italian state broadcaster RAI.
“The images of dozens of bathers who jumped into the sea to help migrants from Syria … reach the shores, saving them, do honour to Italy,” the head of state said. “They show how … a sense of humanity and solidarity prevails among Italians, one that is stronger than any fear or prejudice.”
However, even as the Italian coastguard has helped to save migrants from the Mediterranean, it continues to expel migrants trying to enter Italy from the Adriatic Sea, writes Italian weekly L’Espresso. Since 2011, Italy’s coast guard has expelled 7,000 people back to Greece from whence they came, the magazine says.
In support of the mass expulsions, Italian authorities typically cite European migration agreements, which stipulate that migrants should be processed in the first EU member state they reach, L’Espresso says:
“Once they have been returned to Patras or Igoumenitsa [migrant ports on Greece’s west coast], the migrants end up in the grasp of Greek security forces. Beatings, abuse and degrading detentions are par for the course,” the magazine’s investigators write. “And then they head back to the slums to await their next voyage.”
Greece’s processing of migrants has been criticized as inhumane by European human rights courts; Germany refuses to return asylum seekers south if they are detected.
Meanwhile, overland arrivals into the EU have not had an easier time than ship arrivals to Greece or Malta. Near Bulgaria’s frontier with Turkey, Syrian asylum seekers are crammed into overcrowded detention centers.
“Bulgaria, the poorest member of the European Union, is having difficulty coping with the flow of immigrants,” says Costa Rican daily La Nación. “3,100 have arrived surreptitiously in the country since the beginning of the year, 50 percent more than in 2012.”
Still, in view of the overall dimensions of the refugee crisis in Syria, a nation very close to two EU member states (Greece and Bulgaria), Europe has seen very few asylum seekers arrive so far, statistics indicate.
EU parliamentary figures reveal around 30,000 arrived here in 2012 and the first quarter of 2013.
Conversely, the number of Syrian refugees is now nudging two million, UNHCR figures show.
The UN refugee agency has compared the humanitarian crisis in neighbouring Jordan and Lebanon to the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide in the 1990s. Today, neighbouring Jordan and Lebanon have each taken many hundreds of thousands of refugees, who are crammed into border camps.
“That makes you fear the extension of the war to the entire region,” French paper Le Figaro quotes the Lebanese ambassador to the United Nations as having said in July, in response to that UNHCR report. “Shooting and incursions into Lebanon are becoming more and more frequent, threatening the security of my country.”
Indeed, EU leaders have dismissed complaints from EU member nations over increasing numbers of Syrian arrivals this summer.
Both Italy, Malta and indeed Greece have a “relatively small problem” with refugees, especially compared with Jordan and Lebanon, EU development aid commissioner Kristalina Georgieva, told Austrian daily Die Presse over the weekend.
“The situation isn’t as grim as it’s painted. 50,000 Syrians compared to 500 million Europeans aren’t really so many, after all.”
ABOUT BEST OF THE REST: It's a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it – but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories.
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