Here, then, are the two faces of migration in the EU. One sees 4.8mn Ukrainian refugees warmly welcomed into the bloc as they flee Russia’s bloody war in their country. The other sees a flimsily made boat carrying 200 people smash into rocks metres from the shore in southern Italy, leaving at least 67 dead, including 14 children. The passengers were from countries including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria. The contrasting fates of those entering the EU leaves it open to accusations of double standards, callousness and even racism.
Sunday’s deadly shipwreck was only a matter of time coming. More and more migrants are choosing the same long and perilous journey the boat took from Turkey to Italy because the shorter crossing to Greece or Cyprus has been met with the forced pushback of vessels, in violation of international law. Crossing the central Mediterranean is one of the most dangerous migrant journeys in the world, with 17,000 deaths and disappearances recorded there since 2014, according to the UN.
Meanwhile, overall migrant numbers into the EU have surged after the lifting of pandemic restrictions around the world, and after the economic effects of Russia’s war in Ukraine hit many developing countries. Catastrophic flooding in Pakistan and the return of the Taliban in Afghanistan have only added to the numbers of people fleeing their home country. Not including refugees from Ukraine (who remain under a bespoke scheme), the total number of asylum applications made in the EU, plus Norway and Switzerland, hit 960,000 last year. That is a 50 per cent increase on 2021 and approaching the 1.2mn that sparked the last real migrant crisis in 2015. Then, it took the body of a Syrian toddler, Alan Kurdi, to be washed up on the shore for countries to take action.
Yet Brussels has largely sat on its hands when it comes to dealing with irregular migration and asylum, one of the most divisive topics for voters. A migration pact first proposed in 2020 has been stuck in negotiations. A recent EU leaders’ summit on migration became particularly rancorous, with no real progress made. Although it quickly managed to set up a temporary protection scheme for Ukrainians, the bloc has done little to advance efforts to improve legal processes for migrants to enter. This is one of the key ways to decrease illegal migration, along with a credible, safe and enforced system of return for those who do not meet official criteria.
That has led countries on the front line, including Italy, to take matters into their own hands. The hard-right government of Giorgia Meloni has rightly faced tough questions over Sunday’s shipwreck. Its policy of severely restricting NGO ships that rescue migrants is cynical. Only weeks ago it impounded a rescue ship operated by Médecins Sans Frontières. Its argument that these ships merely encourage irregular migration is risible. People do not flee persecution, war, destitution and natural disasters to risk their lives on a dinghy on the off-chance they might be among the few lucky ones to be saved by an NGO. Rather, the inability of Italy’s coastguard and Guardia di Finanza to prevent this week’s deaths shows precisely why the efforts of such NGO ships are needed.
Meloni has also railed against the lack of EU support in tackling irregular migration. And here she has a point. Brussels must accept responsibility for negotiating a proper system of sharing fairly both the numbers of arrivals and the resources to welcome them. There are no easy solutions to the intractable problem posed by so many people risking perilous sea crossings in the hope of a better life in Europe. But just letting them drown is simply unacceptable.