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Spectre of immigration crisis haunts Europe

Submitted by on 05 May 2011 – 10:22

Dr Tugba Basaran, lecturer at the School of Politics and International Relations and convener of the Master in International Development, Brussels School of International Studies, University of Kent

In the wake of political unrest in North Africa about 30,000 boat people have disembarked on European shores. This has led many European leaders to evoke the spectre of a crisis at Europe’s southern border and to propose counter-measures ranging from increased patrols and better coordination with the European border agency Frontex to calls for European solidarity on burden-sharing and even suggestions on temporary re-establishment of internal borders in the Schengen zone. They are right in one aspect: this is undeniably a crisis situation. They are wrong, however, if they deem this to be a European problem. Tunisia and Egypt are sharing a much bigger burden of the crisis. From more than 635,000 people who have fled Libya, Tunisia has taken about 240,000 and Egypt about 300,000 people. As Jean-Philippe Chauzy from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) states “In terms of migration, the migratory pressure is not for the moment on European countries, it is on countries of North Africa”. Rather than offering solidarity with their North African partners, however, Europe is, in spite of its miniscule share of the crisis, focused on itself in this crucial moment.

The Italian island of Lampedusa has become the focal point of the so-called immigration crisis. Of the 30,000 boat people reaching European shores over the last three months, about 23,000 have landed in Lampedusa, an island with 5,500 residents, often portrayed as too small to accommodate such a major influx of people. This is not a question of capacity, however, but a question of will. In spite of warning signs, Italy, but also Europe, have failed to mitigate the pressure on Lampedusa in time. Insufficient preparation and untimely transfers have intensified the burden on Europe’s border outpost. As Amnesty International boldly states, “This was a crisis of the Italian authorities’ own making and it was entirely avoidable”. The situation is further exacerbated by the Dublin regulations, which hold the first EU country of entry responsible for processing asylum requests, and hence increase the pressure on border states.

Lampedusa is hardly a unique case. The Mediterranean has been depicted for many years as a space where crises unfold and where boat people are at once objects of pity and threats to security. Whilst the focal point of the crisis has shifted between Spain, Italy, Malta and Greece, the depiction of the crises follows predictable patterns, at the core of which are politics of local numbers: comparing the high influx of boat people with a low capacity for accommodation, highlighting the unsuitability of these islands for receiving boat people whilst expanding a tourism industry with much higher numbers of mobility. The problem of Lampedusa and other border islands is not a question of capacity, but a lack of willingness to prioritize humanitarian concerns on a local level and, more importantly, on a national and European level. These crises are of Europe’s own making – and politicians benefit from these high visibility events turned into crises. What these events reveal is the readiness of many European states to use the spectre of crisis as an excuse to adopt anti-immigration platforms to win popular support for upcoming national elections. Recent events have once more unravelled Europe’s continuing struggle to maintain a balance between security and liberties at its borders. The human cost of security is a death toll that over the last three months amounts to 350 people dead or missing at sea. The losers of the internal struggles of Europe are the most vulnerable, those who risk their lives at sea in an effort to cross the Mediterranean.