April 24, 2015

Death on the Mediterranean

Migrants on a packed wooden boat wait to be rescued off the coast of Malta May 3, 2015.
Migrants on a packed wooden boat wait to be rescued off the coast of Malta May 3, 2015.

Speaking on European Parliament television, one of the Mediterranean boat refugees described the chances of survival at sea as 50-50. Last week we saw the dark side of that proverbial coin toss, as for over 900 refugees on the way from Africa to Europe, the journey ended in a watery grave. Still, they did set out on their dangerous way, which means they might well see their odds as even longer at home.

The European Union could not of course ignore such a major catastrophe. Last week the head of the member states of the European Union considered a mission to seek and destroy the smugglers’ vessels that carry the refugees, to prevent them from making their illicit and immoral deliveries to southern European shores.
While it’s good that the European Union is doing something, it is, if you will, just a drop in the sea. If this were a case of a dog that attacked people, it would mean immediate action regarding the dog. But why did the dog become aggressive, and what was the relationship with the owner? Those problems are not being dealt with.
It’s the same with the immigrants who keep on trying to make it to Europe. The European Union has few answers to the question of why they come to Europe, why they don’t stay at home, and what should be done so potential refugees would stay in their homeland.
Several processes are under way simultaneously. After Arab Spring began in late 2010, the hoped-for turn for the better has not materialized. On the contrary: the Arab states, caught up in revolutions, are descending into civil war and collapse. In some countries, the central government is losing control of more territory and the Islamic State has reared its head in some countries. It’s no wonder people want to leave this living hell.
At the same time, immigration has come up as the main question in most elections in the European Union. Politicians who say anything about opening doors to immigrants can bid good-bye to their chances of being elected. The European Union is more and more like a fortress that doesn’t want to know much about the rest of the world.
This year, over 1,500 immigrants have died on their way to Europe, which means a 30-fold increase from at the same time last year. Even that figure was a record. However, last October, the European Union declined to extend the Italian-led operation Mare Nostrum, which saved about 100,000 lives a year. This was mainly out of the fear that if more refugee lives were saved, it would encourage smugglers to bring more people to Europe.
These are not good days for the southern tier of the European Union. The new government in Greece is at loggerheads with the European Union and it isn’t clear whether Greece will stay in the Eurozone. The country has seen a civil war in the past and currently many Greeks don’t see the EU as a stabilizing factor as they did in the past. In Spain, the left-extremist Podemos is gaining ground, which also threatens a sea change for the country. Spain, too, remembers a civil war. And in France, the right-extremist Front National is gaining popularity, which doesn’t to hear very much about the immigrants. Add the attack against Charlie Hebdo in January, which increased prejudices against immigrants even further.
In Central and Eastern Europe, countries are mainly worried about the security threat from Russia – and they don’t want to hear about immigrants, either. Thus calls for a more centralized European immigration policy will run into major political obstacles. As an issue, immigration will not go away, so ostrich tactics are no use. The European Union faces a difficult quandary.
This piece, originally in Estonian, aired on Retro FM’s European news on 24 April.

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