While U.S. fixates on the border wall, populist world leaders still turn migrants away

A woman is rescued by aid workers of Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms in the Central Mediterranean Sea on Dec. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Olmo Calvo)A woman is rescued by aid workers of Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms in the Central Mediterranean Sea on Dec. 21, 2018. (AP Photo/Olmo Calvo)

In the United States all eyes have turned to the southern border as the Trump administration continues a shutdown of the federal government aimed at squeezing $5.7 billion out of House Democrats to pay for the president’s border wall. With all pretense of a Mexico-financed barrier abandoned, the president is now contemplating a declaration of national emergency to seize financing for his wall from the Defense Department construction budget or disaster relief accounts without congressional assent.

More than 4,500 people are believed to have died or gone missing on migration routes around the world in 2018.

Across the Atlantic, a European drama over a group of migrants pulled from the Mediterranean was resolved with the landing of 49 people in Malta. The group, which included several children, was rescued from the waters off Libya by ships operated by two German-based humanitarian rescue efforts, Sea-Watch and Sea-eye. No Mediterranean state would accept responsibility for the migrants, who remained “stranded” on the rescue ships

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Italian ports have been closed to humanitarian landings since a populist coalition government came to power last year. Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, who leads the right-wing, anti-migrant League party, has made it strict policy that no private aid group receive authorization to transfer rescued migrants to land in Italian ports.

Across the Atlantic, a European drama over a group of migrants pulled from the Mediterranean was resolved with the landing of 49 people in Malta.

After allowing the ships to shelter off its coast during bad weather, Maltese authorities kept the rescue vessels offshore for 19 days as international pressure grew to allow them to land. Amid growing criticism for its refusal to accept any number from the group, Italian politicians reminded other European Union nations that Italy has taken in hundreds of thousands of rescued migrants as asylum seekers in recent years.

Pope Francis issued a plea on Jan. 6 for European governments to demonstrate “concrete solidarity” with the rescued migrants; 32 migrants had been picked up on Dec. 22 and 17 others were rescued on Dec. 29. In 2013 during his first official trip outside of Rome, Pope Francis had celebrated Mass on behalf of migrants then landing on Lampedusa, an island off the Sicilian coast.

Outside of the Mediterranean Sea, the U.S.-Mexico border has been one of the deadliest places for migrants.

Malta’s Archbishop Charles Scicluna visited one of the rescue vessels on Jan. 5 and appealed to E.U. leaders to take in the stranded migrants. The migration phenomenon needed a European solution, he said, arguing it was an injustice that people ended up as victims to the E.U. infighting.

“People’s lives are priceless and negotiations should never take place at the expense of the suffering," he said.

Joseph Muscat, prime minister of Malta, announcing that the migrants would be transferred to Maltese military boats and brought ashore on Jan. 9, observed: “Malta, the smallest European Union state, is once again being called upon to shoulder responsibilities way beyond its remit.”

The rescues “took place outside Malta’s area of responsibility,” he said. “We were not the responsible authority, and we were not the nearest safe port of call.” Mr. Muscat said Malta should not have to provide for the 49 migrants when, in the past few weeks, it had “unilaterally rescued a further 249 persons at sea whose lives were clearly in danger.”

“People’s lives are priceless and negotiations should never take place at the expense of the suffering," Archbishop Scicluna said.

An agreement, he said, had been reached with eight other European countries to relocate the 49 migrants rescued by Sea-Watch and 131 others picked up by Maltese authorities. While Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte said Italy would accept some of the migrants, Mr. Salvini insisted that would not happen.

“I am and remain absolutely opposed to new arrivals in Italy,” Mr. Salvini tweeted. “I will continue to work to expel the already too numerous illegals already present.”

Drowning is by far the biggest cause of deaths for migrants worldwide.

In the United States headlines describing the migrant crisis on the Mediterranean have been displaced by the domestic political dispute over a border wall. But the suffering on the high seas at Europe’s doorstep continues, and the Mediterranean passage for migrants escaping poverty and conflict in Africa and the Middle East remains deeply perilous. Various efforts to formalize or halt the human flow have bogged down as patience has run thin and populist resistance to refugee resettlements has escalated across Europe.

On Dec. 12, 164 of the 193 members of the United Nations adopted the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration in Marrakesh, but the pact is already showing signs of fraying beyond the European discord on the Mediterranean.

Brazil’s Foreign Ministry informed U.N. officials on Jan. 9 that Brazil would be withdrawing from the compact at the direction of its new populist, ultra-conservative president, Jair Bolsonaro. Austria and the United States are among other countries that have already announced they would not participate in the pact because it places constraints on national migration policies.

The withdrawal from the compact was deplored by the Brazilian bishops’ conference. “We are leaving an important global dialogue,” said Roberval Freire, who works at the conference’s Migration Pastoral office.

Signed in December, the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration is already showing signs of fraying beyond the European discord on the Mediterranean.

“Regrettably and erroneously, the new government abandons this tradition [of hosting] and rejects the global migration pact,” he said in a statement released on Jan. 10.

The statement continued: “We declare that we continue [to be] defenders and fighters [for] a society without borders, without walls, and we defend a more humane…treatment between Brazilians, other peoples and nations that need our help.

“We do not want a society that discards the human being.”

The Missing Migrants Project has recorded thousands of deaths each year all over the world.

As sentiment continues to turn against migrants, at least among populist political leaders around the world, the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration reported on Jan. 8 that for the fifth consecutive year more than 4,500 people are believed to have died or gone missing on migration routes around the world in 2018. The 2018 count of 4,648 deaths is down 20 percent from the number of lives lost in 2017. It is far lower than the more than 8,000 who perished in 2016. Ten migrants and refugees have died so far in 2019.

Just about half of the deaths last year occurred among the more than 116,000 migrants who made their way to Europe via the Mediterranean passage. The I.O.M. warned that its tally is likely to be incomplete as there are few reliable sources of information about deaths and disappearances due to the clandestine nature of these migrant paths, particularly the desert approaches to Mediterranean crossing routes where unknown numbers perish.

According to the report, multiple tragedies on all three Mediterranean routes in the final two weeks of 2018 claimed the lives of at least 23 people, including two children; 31 others are reported missing. The U.N. reports that the coast guards, navies and rescue agencies of several nations, nongovernmental groups running rescue operations, and a U.S.-flagged cargo vessel together rescued at least 135 migrants at sea in the final two weeks of 2018.

In a statement released on Jan. 5, the crew of Sea-Watch 3 demanded coordinated and humane response by E.U. states to the ongoing migrant crisis that could mean safe routes for migrants and a shared resettlement burden among E.U. members. “The calls of countries such as Italy, Malta and Greece on other E.U. states for the reception and resettlement of refugees are justified,” the statement read, “as other countries including the U.K. very well know.

“So it is high time that Europe makes new agreements for the reception and resettlement of people who are simply seeking a safe haven. There must come an end to the pushing to and fro of exhausted and often traumatized human beings—children and pregnant women among them—where again and again decisions are made on an ad hoc basis, apparently with the greatest difficulty, about which European country will admit a handful of people to their asylum procedure.”

Noting the 2018 death toll and the drowning deaths of at least 17,589 people on the Mediterranean since 2014, the crew said: “If our political parties truly have respect for human lives and human rights, they will make sure, together with their European colleagues, that this terrible death toll isn’t repeated in 2019.”

With content from The Associated Press and Catholic News Service. Infographic data from the Missing Migrants Project at the International Organization for Migration.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
J Cosgrove
4 months 1 week ago

Is populist the new bogeyman? Just what is populist? Just what is right-wing? These words are used in a pejorative sense on this website so they must think they are bad. But populist means looking after the ordinary person and the right-wing really does not exist in Western society. We should not try to pin these deaths/bad things on ordinary people or some imaginary political group.

Shouldn't those who encourage these migrations bear responsibilities for the bad things that happen to the people after they leave their home?

Robert Boatwright
4 months 1 week ago

I believe that sovereign countries are entitled to protect their borders and have the right to determine who is allowed into their country. Would you allow anyone to just walk into your house, or do you determine who comes into your house? Just because someone shows up at my doorstep doesn’t mean I will let them in. The same principles apply to mass migration.
Having witnessed mass migrations I understand the consequences and costs associated with mass migration. Most arrive with no skills, and no intention of integrating into the culture, instead creating mini-versions of the country they just left. The idea is to show up with hand extended and to live off their host country.
In the end, it is wrong to force countries to take on migrants they are ill equipped to handle. As they said in Italy two summers ago, if the Pope insists on taking in migrants let the Vatican house and care for them.
Please don’t get me wrong I’m not saying ignore the situation, but the United Nations should do more to provide humanitarian aid and stabilize the countries these migrants are running away from.

arthur mccaffrey
4 months 1 week ago

since when did populist become a dirty word? Using the word in the title biases the article before we even read it--we know it will be a bleeding heart story pitching open borders everywhere, despite many european countries having had their fill of over-migration in recent years----so when people elect governments who reflect the way they feel, this author and so many others call them pejorative names? And since when did a middle east and african population exodus "need a European solution"? That's like saying that squatters on your lawn need you to solve their problem for them--why don't the countries being exited solve it?

Michael Koopman
4 months ago

I agree in part with the previous comments regarding the use of political memes to establish a bogeyman. Considering the publication the extent of such name calling is reserved. Perhaps recent allegations identified with some of the most relevant support for name calling, labeling and other press related political stunts allows for minimization of the yellow tones on these pages? I hope such overdue change, change, change is the new norm.
In contrast the dire circumstances of the Mediterranean migrants is the crux. How the petty details even if these are found a distraction or nuisance become the reason to comment is telling. The term used in relation to politics washes off and the reality of the human condition is emphasized where clear danger is highlighted. In this my agreement with the political overtones is contrasted with recognition that charity in light of the human tragedy is many times more significant than the mantle of the article.
So, populist is only a bad word when the population is heartless.

rose-ellen caminer
4 months ago

What ever happened to "never again"? What ever happened to the "obligation to protect"?You have men, women and children fleeing bombs, torture prisons and persecutions, in war torn countries[ a holocaust of Sunnis in Syria and their persecutions in Iraq]and others in desperation fleeing disfunctional corrupt governments, where violence is rampant,fleeing dire poverty , and the right wing Europeans and Americans are telling them they and their children should stay put and die!These same people who in the case of the US, had ancestors who came over as migrants or refugees too! No one told the Irish to stay there and "fix their problems" even if it meant their children die of starvation! How do you fix bombs falling on you? The callousness of this pervasive mindset is at its core racist supremacist, and xenophobic[imo] I don't see it any other way;your suffering , your lives don't matter to us so go away!We who pride ourselves on fighting and winning wars against mass murdering racist nationalist regimes now take the position that we should turn away these people fleeing in desperation for their lives and that of their children! Being a nation of immigrants does not exempt us from being incapable of such xenophobic racist nationalism this pervasive attitude reveals!

Todd Witherell
4 months ago

And Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” Luke 8:20. The migrants are on the move, one the Road, searching for home. Wandering. Not all who wander are lost. And those who meet and welcome strangers are often amazed by what they discover. I can bear witness to this truth myself. You shoulda heard what I seen. Who do you love? Who do you love?

THOMAS E BRANDLIN, MNA
3 months 3 weeks ago

Maybe populist leaders get the point: They are elected to represent their people; not the people of another country. Their people come first, oh, that sounds very much like, "America first!, America first!, America first!," in a recent innaugural address. Do you seriously think Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Theresa May, Vladimir Putin, etc. are going to let their countries be overrun by migrants? Angela Merkel tried that and now she is heading into the sunset. She is also, too late for her political career, wising-up and recognizing she has to control the influx.
I notice Pope Francis has not encouraged more families than the first few to come live in the Vatican. Maybe he gets the point too: he, as the Vicar of Christ, reigns over the Vatican City State and the Universal Church. He doesn't want the Vatican City State to become a warehouse of humanity.
You should hear the stories I hear from people who live in the San Diego - San Ysidro area about pre- and post-wall.

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