European countries gear up for what they expect to be a repeat of the 2015 migration crisis after Greece has reported a surge in arrivals over the past several weeks and the United Kingdom claimed that more people are attempting to cross its borders over fears that a no-deal Brexit would cut their chances to get to the British Isles.
Despite multiple efforts by the EU to curb the illegal sea migration and the fact that such a journey entails so many dangers for migrants themselves, the flow of Europe-bound irregular migrants from the Middle East and North Africa continues and has even spiked over the past several weeks, sparking strife within Europe.
Brexit Will Not Drift UK Apart From Migration Crisis
Disagreements over migration policies are believed to be one of the key reasons that the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in 2016. Amid the looming possibility of the free movement of people to stop, the migrant traffic via La Manche, also known as the English Channel between the United Kingdom and France, has reportedly intensified.
The British Border Force regularly reports the interception of inflatable boats, including those operated by smugglers, with irregular migrants aboard that are trying to reach the UK shore.
According to the UK Home Office in 2019, more than 900 migrants have successfully made it through the passage from France to the United Kingdom via La Manche, which at its narrowest point is about 20 miles wide, and at least 65 were returned.
"The increase in La Manche crossings shows well that if people want to go there, nothing could prevent them from it. We can build walls and barriers, but what we see is that people are still here, they continue coming despite police pressure and daily police violence against this population", according to Yann Manzi, a co-founder of the French-based migrant charity Utopia56.
Brexit will not curb the migrant influx, he continued, because when asylum seekers, having gone so far away from home, are denied acceptance, they have no choice but to go to other places.
That is what has happened in France, where authorities of the Calais port-city keep dismantling migrant camps.
"All the people in Calais did not want to go to England. The proof is that after the dismantling of the camps [first dismantling in autumn 2016] and [former] Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve promised that all the people in the camps would be able to claim asylum, which was not the case … People had to go to England because they didn't have a choice", Manzi said.
The charity co-founder added that, instead of trying to complicate the migrants' journey, the authorities — not only in the United Kingdom but in all other countries — should focus on working out a policy framework that would allow people to apply for asylum in the country of their choice, and in the meantime, they should create humanitarian corridors to prevent migrants from dying and suffering in thousands.
Frontline Wants Its Migration Burden Shared Equally
In 2019 alone, an approximate 34,000 people have arrived in Greece, the highest number since 2016. Amid the surge of arrivals and limited reception facilities, the Greek authorities struggle to accommodate all the newcomers and continue to keep them stranded on the islands in the Aegean Sea. Despite the migrant camps being overcrowded and dire living conditions, the Greek authorities struggle to come up with a major policy solution, being tied by EU and NATO migration agreements.
Andrea Contenta, the humanitarian affairs coordinator at the Doctors Without Borders (MSF), believes that the problem is not so much the numbers per se, but rather "the clear lack of political will in addressing the issue of migration to Europe, which cannot be solved with temporary measures."
"MSF is witnessing an on-going health and mental health crisis amongst the men, women, and especially children residing in Moria, Vathi and Vial Reception and Identification Centers (RICs). These are the consequence of ill-thought policies, which deliberately have kept people in places, in which they are not provided with even the basic services," Contenta said.
She added that there were children among the stranded migrants who stopped speaking and were severely harming themselves.
"What we see today on the Greek islands reflects the ongoing conflicts and humanitarian situation in the broader region. The majority of people coming to Greece today has travelled through Turkey and is from Afghanistan, Syria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon and Iran, amongst others nationalities", she said.
But Turkey itself is also struggling to cope with a strong influx of migrants. In 2016, the European Union and Ankara concluded an agreement, under which the latter was expected to curb the flow of illegal migrants who tried to transit through Turkey in an effort to proceed further into the European continent. The package came with a whopping financial component of 6 billion euros ($6.6 million) to be paid to Turkey.
Last week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened "to open gates" to Europe for migrants, saying that Ankara has not received the agreed amount of support and refuses to carry the migration burden alone any longer.
"We have no choice but to open the doors. If you want to support us, then do it. Are we supposed to bear this burden alone?" Erdogan said.
Rome’s stance on migrants has been tough, with Italy notably refusing to let NGO search-and-rescue boats provide adequate assistance to migrants in the Mediterranean and to disembark on its soil.
However, with Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini, known for his anti-migrant rhetoric, leaving the government, NGOs hope for a change in Italy's migration policies.
"Sadly, recent Italian migration management policies, backed by the European Union, deteriorated the situation in the Mediterranean Sea. Italian authorities have put all their efforts into transfer of Search and Rescue coordination responsibilities to the Libyan Coast Guard and its Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC). This was despite European states being fully aware of the alarming level of violence and exploitation which refugees, migrants and asylum seekers are returned to by the LCG. Additionally, the Libyan JRCC has repeatedly demonstrated that they do not have the capacity to fully coordinate a rescue in such a large zone; additionally, they do not provide rescue vessels with a place of safety for disembarkation in line with international laws," Bianca Benvenuti, MSF advocacy officer in Italy, said.
As she rightly noted, political disputes over the permission for the disembarkation of ships with migrants aboard has become a regular occurrence. For example, the Open Arms rescue ship with about a hundred migrants on board had been stranded for nearly three weeks, with people reportedly experiencing panic attacks and throwing themselves into the sea to swim their way to shore, before it was allowed to dock at the Italian island of Lampedusa.
"The Italian government has just changed and we’ll have to wait to understand which changes might occur in migration policies. We keep up the hope that the newly formed government will not be blind to the unnecessary sufferings Italian and European governments are causing to this people, and implement policies that prioritize people and lives," Benvenuti added.
Backrow Reluctant To Let Migrants In
The influx of migrants has already left a deep trace on the European population and all sorts of voices are heard from around the bloc about the need to come up with a sustainable solution.
"Most EU regions with rapidly expanding populations were characterised by high levels of net migration plus adjustment, rather than rapid natural population change," the Eurostat Regional Yearbook 2019 read.
Yet, not all EU countries agree that the solution to the migration inflow, started by German Chancellor Angela Merkel's policy of "open arms" in 2015, should be their responsibility.
The so-called Visegrad Four — Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia — have even enshrined anti-immigrant policies into their national legislation, with Hungary building a razor wire-topped fence along its border with Serbia in 2015.
In 2017, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s administration adopted new laws requiring all asylum seekers to remain in so-called container camps in two mandatory transit zones along the border while waiting for the verdict on their cases. The legislation, touted as the Stop Soros law, also criminalised any attempts, including of non-governmental organisations, to provide aid to undocumented migrants in any form.
France's migration policies have also sparked tumultuous debates in the country, and outside of it. Thousands of French police patrols have been deployed on the borders under the pretext of fighting the threat of terrorism, but, essentially, to also send back thousands of migrants coming from neighbouring countries. In March, the European Court of Justice ruled that using anti-terrorism measures by the French border patrol to push back irregular migrants through internal EU borders was illegal, much to Spain's salutation.
"The authorities have put hundreds and thousands of people on the streets; since this summer we have seen a nation-wide closure of squats, which resulted in a large amount of homeless people in the streets. But it’s not because of the influx of people, it’s because of the policy of the state, which continues scrapping the budget for helping the poor… trying to increase the amount of returns. What we see is that people are exhausted, there is real psychological police violence", Utopia56's Manzi said.
It was not until June that the European Council toughened the rules of irregular migration management. The agreed measures included allowing police to "take action" in case migrants do not cooperate by using detentions, a mechanism for voluntary returns and, as a last resort, deportations.
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