Ticklish issue

EUROPE'S MIGRANTS: Economic slump and nation-alist backlash in Europe have made immigration a hot political topic, so low-skilled migrants are unwelc

Ticklish issue
After much deliberation and soul searching, the European Union (EU) has approved a preliminary plan for a naval mission to stem the influx of migrants trying to reach Europe through human trafficking and smuggling operations in Libya. At least 51,000 migrants have reached Europe this year and more than 1,800 have died trying to transit the Mediterranean.

The new EU plan will use ships, helicopters, and drones over the Mediterranean to gather intelligence about smuggling operations, with direct action in Libya possible pending approval by the UN Security Council. "This is just the beginning,” Federica Mogherini, the EU’s top diplomat, has said. “Now the planning starts.” The EU is now seeking a UNSC resolution that would give it a legal basis for using military force against smuggling networks.

At the meeting earlier this week, the EU diplomats stressed the urgency of establishing a response. "As summer comes, more people are travelling, and I would like to have this operation in place as soon as possible,” Mogherini said. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg also participated in the meeting and warned of the potential for terrorists to exploit border insecurity. “One of the problems also is that there might be foreign fighters, there might be terrorists trying to hide, trying to blend in among the migrants,” he said.

The naval action is part of broader EU efforts to address the growing numbers of migrants trying to flee war and hunger in Africa and the Middle East crossing the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe. More than 1,800 migrants have died in the Mediterranean in 2015. That is a 20-fold increase on the same period in 2014. Wars have escalated on the periphery of the EU, driving refugees towards Europe - Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia and Libya are all engulfed in conflict.
Italy is on the frontline of this struggle and has urged its EU partners to do more to help. At an emergency summit on April 23, EU leaders pledged to beef up the bloc's maritime patrols in the Mediterranean, disrupt people trafficking networks and capture and destroy boats before migrants board them. However, any military action would have to conform with international law even as the chaos in war-torn Libya remains a huge problem.

The European Commission, the EU executive arm, has also announced plans to take in 20,000 more refugees over the next two years; but, a number of countries, including Britain, France and Poland, have opposed the Commission’s efforts to establish quotas for asylum seekers. The Commission has issued the “European Agenda on Migration” setting out common policy goals for the 28-nation EU to adopt and make law. It argues that the current system is failing to cope with the migrant influx, which is fuelled by the profits made by traffickers. The war raging in Libya has exacerbated the flow from there.

Britain has rejected any quota, exercising an established exemption from EU migration policies. The French prime minister has said he is against quota because France has already taken in thousands of refugees from Syria and Iraq since 2012. Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo said Spain's chronic unemployment meant it could not help: “Pledging to take in migrants to whom you cannot provide work would be, in my opinion, providing a bad service,” he said.

The UK is of course trying to redefine the nature of its relationship with the EU. Despite the Conservative Party’s promise to reduce the numbers, 2.6 lakh more people arrived in the UK in the year to June. This disappointed right-wing Tories who have been pressing for a cap on numbers of EU migrants admitted to the UK.

Credibility on immigration

The opposition Labour Party too had been struggling on the issue and its ex-leader Ed Miliband had said that Cameron has absolutely no credibility on immigration. He noted that the prime minister had said “No ifs, no buts, we will get net migration down and it's gone up. He actually said 'kick us out in five years if we don't deliver.” A reinvigorated Cameron after his impressive victory earlier this month now wants to negotiate new rules on freedom of movement within the Union.

And the more immediate challenge has been framed by the dramatic rise of the anti-immigrant UK Independence Party  in British politics. The UKIP has, as its name implies, one key policy – to leave the European Union. It is a simple, understandable message, which has led to the party gaining bigger and bigger support in European elections, culminating in it garnering third place after the Conservative and the Labour Party with 13 per cent vote share in recent elections.

Advice to the EU has come from all sides. Australian PM Tony Abbott urged Europe to follow his country's lead, saying: "The only way you can stop the deaths is, in fact, to stop the boats." Australia detains all asylum seekers who arrive by boat, holding them in offshore processing camps. For years, the EU has been struggling to harmonise asylum policy. That is difficult with 28 member states, each with their own police force and judiciary. Globalisation and the media revolution have fuelled migrants' expectations – many dream of starting a new life in Europe.

The economic slump and nationalist backlash in Europe have made immigration a hot political topic, so low-skilled migrants are often unwelcome. The EU is struggling to come to terms with the growing disenchantment with the political establishment’s handling of immigration and it is likely to shape the organisation’s response to a crisis of growing magnitude.

(The writer is Professor of International Relations, King's College, London)

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