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Bridget RyderSeptember 25, 2023
Migrants wait to be transferred from Lampedusa Island, Italy, on Sept. 15. Thousands of migrants and refugees have landed on the Italian island of Lampedusa this week after crossing the Mediterranean Sea on small unseaworthy boats from Tunisia, overwhelming local authorities and aid organizations. (AP Photo/Valeria Ferraro)Migrants wait to be transferred from Lampedusa Island, Italy, on Sept. 15. (AP Photo/Valeria Ferraro)

On his visit to Marseille last week, Pope Francis decried the “fanaticism of indifference” on the plight of migrants who risk their lives—and all too often lose them—in the attempt to reach Europe across the Mediterranean Sea. Pope Francis had visited Marseille to add his perspective to the Mediterranean Meetings on immigration, a week-long gathering of bishops, faithful and mayors from around the Mediterranean Sea who discussed the ongoing migrant crisis.

The pope has made it clear this was not a visit to France, but rather a trip to participate in the meetings and contribute to a Christian response to a situation that has lasted for nearly a decade with no end in sight.

The gathering coincided with a new wave of migrant arrivals to the Italian island of Lampedusa, the natural first landing point for migrants setting out from Tunisia, one of the principal departure points in northern Africa. In the space of just three days during the second week of September, some 200 small boats and 8,500 people arrived in dinghies, according to officials from the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, doubling the island’s population and overwhelming its migrant reception services.

The spectacle on Lampedusa provoked new statements of concern from European leaders, but migration analysts say they are not hearing any new ideas to address an ongoing crisis.

It is the latest spike in a continuing saga of migrant crossings of the Mediterranean Sea that has marked 2023. In just the first half of the year, more than 130,000 people have landed in Italy— twice the number of migrants than in all of 2022. Thousands of others have not survived the crossing.

The spectacle on Lampedusa, an island off Sicily and closer to Tunisia than the Italian mainland, provoked new statements of concern from European leaders, but migration analysts say they are not hearing any new ideas to address an ongoing crisis that has included the deaths of more than 28,000 people on the Mediterranean Sea since 2014.

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the E.U. Commission, the community’s governing body, made a surprise visit on Sept. 17 to Lampedusa, accompanied by Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni. The next day the commission released a 10-point plan to address the new surge in migrant arrivals, promising to step up returns of migrants to their countries of origin, to work more closely with Tunisia to prevent migrant crossings and to reinforce patrols by the E.U. border security force Frontex. The plan includes new demands on individual E.U. member states to accept more migrants, with the aim of relieving the pressure on Italian reception services.

Claudia Bonamini, a policy and advocacy coordinator for Jesuit Refugee Service-Europe, was not impressed. “I’ve lost count of the number of communications from the commission,” she said.

Claudia Bonamini, Jesuit Refugee Service: “The numbers [of arriving migrants] are high but not the highest.” They could be “manageable, if there [were] the political will.”

Similar plans have been presented nearly every year, she said. They repeat longstanding European policy, including offering financial aid to the Mediterranean’s African states like Libya and Tunisia to support their coastal patrols and efforts to deter would-be migrants from making the crossing.

None of these policies have worked, she said. While migrating people continue to arrive at Europe’s borders by land and sea, reception services and the asylum processing system remain overwhelmed and the process of returning migrants continues to be legally and politically problematic. All the while, more migrants perish at sea or in the Sahara Desert attempting to reach the North African coast.

Ms. Bonamini challenges the notion that the current conditions represent a true crisis. “The numbers [of arriving migrants] are high but not the highest,” she said. She argues they could be “manageable, if there [were] the political will.”

In 2011, 60,000 people arrived at Lampedusa. Indeed, Europe absorbed some 4 million Ukrainian refugees who suddenly appeared at its eastern borders following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, earning broad applause for its show of solidarity.

In contrast to those previous efforts to respond to migrant numbers, Poland’s deputy prime minister and head of the ruling Law and Justice party, Jarosław Kaczyński, has called the current surge “an incursion” and warned that “Lampedusa is just a symbol of the situation that threatens the whole of Europe, including Poland.” The Polish government also passed a resolution to refuse to accept transfers of immigrants from Italy.

The reality, according to Ms. Bonamini and other experts on migration, is that European policy plays a role in creating the emergency conditions on Lampedusa. She said that reception facilities on Lampedusa are chronically at overcapacity, a situation the Italian government seems to intentionally perpetuate so it can use conditions on the island as a political tool, whether to leverage for votes or to appeal for more help from the European Union or other European countries.

Analysts warn that Europe’s framing of migration from Africa as an “incursion” or “invasion” puts it in a weak position in relation to countries such as Tunisia, which can exploit anxieties over migration to their own ends.

Fewer rescue missions from E.U. powers at sea also ultimately mean more migrant boats choosing the comparably safer route to Lampedusa as a destination. The island is simply the first piece of land a water craft coming from Tunisia can reach.

When the Italian Coast Guard, civil boats or N.G.O. rescue boats assist migrant dinghies and boats, they can distribute migrants among other ports. Ms. Meloni, who took office in 2022, ran on an anti-immigration platform and had targeted N.G.O.s that sponsor rescue operations on the Mediterranean, decreeing measures meant to limit their operations.

At the same time, Tunisia has become a hostile place for immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa. The North African state is teetering on economic collapse, and the increasingly authoritarian rule of President Kais Saied has meant political isolation and a diminished willingness from European powers to provide economic aid to Tunisia.

Mr. Saied also launched his own anti-immigrant campaign earlier this year that has included the deportation of vulnerable people. Some 800 migrants were deposited in the desert near the Tunisia-Libyan border without food or water. Mr. Saied’s anti-migrant campaign has also likely pushed immigrants who were getting by in Tunisia to set out for Europe, according to Ms. Bonamini.

Analysts warn that Europe’s framing of migration from Africa as an “incursion” or “invasion” puts it in a weak position in relation to countries such as Tunisia, which can exploit anxieties over migration to their own ends. Rapid disbursement of aid to countries on the Mediterranean’s southern shores has been a standard E.U. response to each new migrant “crisis.” The dramatic and well-publicized surge of migrants to Lampedusa has proven lucrative for Mr. Saied.

More flexibility about how to reach, live and work in Europe would encourage so-called circular migration, allowing migrants to work in Europe for a time and then return home with new skills and savings to invest.

This time, E.U. officials announced 135 million euros in aid to Tunisia, in principle meant to be used for migration control. Coincidentally or not, the same day that the European Union promised the new support, Tunisian police cleared 500 immigrants from the harbor of Sfax, the main point of departure to Europe.

“Everyone speaks about managing immigration, but [what they mean is] blocking immigration,” Ms. Bonamini said. “Immigration is [a] reality” that E.U. leaders need to accept and practically manage, she said. In a globalized world marked by deep international inequality, she describes immigration as a geopolitical phenomenon that will continue.

Managing immigration properly would start, she said, with greatly expanding the European community’s reception and processing capacity, as well as beginning integration efforts quickly. Whether escaping war, poverty or political persecution, migrants arrive in Europe with the desire to find work and start building a new life, but they usually end up stagnant for months, awaiting an asylum decision, “parked in reception centers, at best, if they don’t end up homeless.”

“So much energy is lost at the beginning,” she said.

Many migrating people are also traumatized from the situations they fled and the harrowing journey to reach Europe. They need a space where they can rest and recover, according to Ms. Bonamini.

Ms. Bonamini said that Jesuit Refugee Service attempts to address these challenges through specific programs that accompany migrants, but she argues a deeper paradigm shift at the policymaking level is also required. According to Ms. Bonamini, migrants tend to remain in Europe under dubious legal status because of how difficult and costly it is to reach Europe in the first place.

Many countries in Africa are plagued by political instability and poverty. In many African states, human rights violations occur on a regular basis.

More flexibility about how to reach, live and work in Europe would encourage so-called circular migration, allowing migrants to work in Europe for a time and then return home with new skills and savings to invest.

And for those who wish to remain long-term, European states, she argued, need to address historic and chronic failures to assimilate immigrants. Riots across France earlier this year after the police shooting of a boy of Algerian descent demonstrated the deep division in French society caused by ghettoization of immigrants even after generations of their communal presence. But Europe’s leaders hardly seem prepared for a radical change in strategy, Ms. Bonamini said.

The French interior minister visited Italy last week to meet with his Italian counterpart and deliver a message of “firmness” in deterring migrants. “There can be no message given to people who come to [European] soil that they will be welcomed no matter what,” Gérald Darmanin said.

He added that his country would take in people fleeing political persecution but stated that in “60 percent” of cases, migrants “come from countries like Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Gambia,” where “there is no humanitarian issue.”

Ms. Bonamini acknowledges that people coming from those countries or other places in sub-Saharan Africa may not qualify for asylum at the rates deemed accepted for people fleeing Syria or Afghanistan, “but every migrant has their story,” she said.

Many countries in Africa are plagued by political instability and poverty. In many African states, human rights violations occur on a regular basis. Sometimes European countries are directly involved in creating these situations.

In Senegal, a state that is currently producing many new migrants, overfishing by European fleets and a new off-shore gas project have destroyed local fisheries, pushing Senegalese to migrate.

She argues that it is also unfair to reject the asylum claims of migrating people purely on economic grounds, particularly when global inequality is a principal factor in migration. “People have been moving to where they have more opportunity forever,” she said.

Ms. Bonamini also notes a certain hypocritical trend in European immigration policy. Even with a youth unemployment rate of 23 percent and an economic inactivity rate of 34 percent, Italy’s employers still seek out foreign workers. And despite campaigning to reclaim Italian national identity and limit immigration, Ms. Meloni has moved to create almost 500,000 work visas for non-E.U. citizens.

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