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Without a paddle? Right-wing populism threatens a resolution to the refugee crisis in the Med

Across the world, a minimum of 2,793 migrants have died while making their journey so far this year. More than two-thirds of them have lost their lives in the Mediterranean, making it the most dangerous border crossing in the world, by an order of magnitude. It says much about the abject conditions, war and personal tragedy that many of these people are fleeing that despite the surge in mortalities, they are still prepared to come in their tens of thousands in the hope of finding a better life.

Many put their lives in the unscrupulous hands of profiteering traffickers. But there’s also blood on the hands of callous governments, many of which are unwilling to provide the help so desperately needed, their actions supposedly justified by an apparent public fear and distrust of immigrants. In May, the European Commission tabled the European Agenda on Immigration, aimed at curbing the mounting crisis. But a surge in right-wing populism, and with it anti-immigration sentiment, could derail any attempts at a resolution.

**The scale of the problem

With nearly 60 million people – similar to the entire population of Britain – now a refugee, the number is the highest it’s been since records began. As many as one in seven people in the world are now migrants in one form or another, and yet attitudes towards immigrants seems to be hardening, if anything. It is estimated that up to 14 July, there have been more than 160,000 maritime migrant arrivals in Europe since the beginning of 2015. The convergence of a number of crises in the Middle East and North Africa has partly led to a surge in the numbers seeking asylum in the European Union (EU) – up some 86% between the first quarter of 2014 and the first quarter of 2015.

By far and away the biggest non-European influx to the EU is from Syria, which accounted for 16% of all first-time applications for asylum. Afghanistan was next highest after Syria, with 8% of all first-time applications. As Syrians are increasingly being denied entry to neighbouring countries, many make the journey to the EU via Africa. The ongoing civil war in Libya is also precipitating an increase in the number of migrants from sub-Saharan Africa looking for work in the EU, having previously travelled to Libya in search of employment.

This proliferation of desperate people seeking passage to Europe is a golden opportunity for smugglers and traffickers. The relatively affluent refugees from Syria are particularly lucrative, with traffickers able to charge up to £1,000 per person. In such an impoverished region of the world as this, it’s not hard to see the appeal. But the result is a lot of opportunism, with vessels often unseaworthy and the measures taken to avoid border authorities adding to the dangers.

Relatively affluent refugees from Syria are particularly lucrative, with traffickers able to charge up to £1,000 per person.

A report by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) concluded: “When the boats and trucks and containers are over-filled, when food and water are not provided, when passengers are jettisoned in shoreline waters, when migrants end up in detention or are abandoned to die when injured or too sick – in any of these and other scenarios – money is behind the mistreatment.”

But it is the response of governments to immigrants that drives these unfortunate souls into the arms of smugglers and traffickers. As William Lacy Swing, Director General of the IOM said: “Undocumented migrants are not criminals, but human beings in need of protection and assistance, entitled to legal assistance, and deserving respect.”

The anti-immigration sentiment that seems to be sweeping Europe, propagated by right-wing parties, is beginning to shape policy in a number of countries. As official channels are choked off for immigrants, those seeking refuge are left with little option but to trust their fate to traffickers.

Tabling a solution: the European Agenda on Migration

In response to the ongoing crisis, the European Commission put forward the European Agenda on Migration in May, a set of policies aimed at alleviating the immediate dangers in the short-term and implementing an EU strategy for handling migration in the future.

The immediate short-term measures implemented include tripling the budget for Frontex, which is responsible for providing border support to member states and carrying out the search and rescue missions for migrants at sea. Traffickers and smugglers are to be targeted more effectively in a joined-up approach by Europol and Frontex.

Migratory sea routes mean the majority of undocumented migrants end up landing in Italy and Greece, putting a disproportionate strain on services in these nations. That’s why the agenda has provision to relocate 40,000 asylum seekers “in clear need of international protection” from Italy and Greece to the other member states of the EU – based on strict proportional criteria such as the size of their economy, unemployment rate, and population – over the next two years. A further 20,000 people not yet in Europe who are deemed in clear need of protection will be resettled throughout the EU. In the longer term, the agenda proposes resettling a further 20,000 every year by 2020.

Barriers to resolution: the threat from the right

The measures of the European Agenda on Migration were voted through at the end of June, marking a significant step forward. However, the acid test will be how widely and effectively the proposals are implemented. As the European Commission noted, the agenda has to be applied “in accordance with the principles of solidarity and shared responsibility. No member state can effectively address migration alone”. From the outset, though, this notion of shared responsibility has been undermined.

For some time now, certain member states have been bearing an unfair share of the load, with many others reticent to take in those seeking asylum. For instance, figures from earlier this year showed Britain had taken in just 143 Syrian refugees since the start of the crisis, compared with the 30,000 accepted by Germany.

The relocation of 40,000 people in Italy and Greece is to be shared out proportionally among the other states of the EU. However, Denmark and the UK will not partake because their different treaty terms allow them to opt out. It is perhaps no coincidence that the former has just seen a big swing to the right, while the latter is now under a majority right-wing government. The migrant crisis in the Med is an EU-wide problem that requires an EU-wide response. The unwillingness of the UK and Denmark threatens to disrupt the whole thing as it violates the “principles of solidarity and shared responsibility” and may encourage others to renege on their obligations.

Britain has taken in just 143 Syrian refugees since the start of the crisis, compared with the 30,000 accepted by Germany.

But the real threat from the far right is not so much from them forming governments. Rather, it’s the impact they are having on the immigration debate across the spectrum, dragging centrist parties further right and even putting pressure on the liberal left. We saw this clearly in Britain as the Tory party hardened its stance on immigration to ward off the electoral threat of Ukip, and even Labour wanted to look tough on immigration. It’s a similar story in France, with the centre-left government wobbling over the proposed EU-wide quota system for asylum seekers, reportedly due to pressure from the far right that they are too lax on immigration.

And the far right is seeing a resurgence in a number of states across Europe. In Finland, the right-wing populist Finns party is the second largest in parliament. In Hungary, the extreme right-wing Jobbik party secured more than 20% of the vote at the last election, as did the Freedom Party of Austria. Smaller, but not insignificant, far-right parties poll upwards of 5% in Italy, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. What all of these disparate parties have in common is a strong anti-immigration sentiment.

The European Agenda on Migration is far from a perfect solution, the target of 20,000 resettlements across the EU is a fairly modest one, given the scale of international crises. However, in trying to offer genuinely EU-wide solutions to an EU-wide problem it marks a step in the right direction. The early signs are encouraging, as the number of lives lost at sea has tailed off considerably since it was tabled in May.

Looking ahead though, the influence of far-right and populist right-wing parties across the political spectrum represents a clear and present danger to thousands of migrant lives. The question is really what kind of Europe we want. Do we want a Europe driven by fear of the other, and mistrust towards migrants? Or do we want a Europe that offers hope to those who desperately need help and aspiration for those with skills and talents to offer?

Image courtesy of Royal Navy Media Archive via Flickr, used under (CC BY-NC 2.0).

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