Refugee crisis in Europe?
by Rikard Jozwiak
In the wake of the war in Libya and the recent revolutions in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia, the European Union is bracing itself for the arrival of a large number of migrants – writes Rikard Jozwiak.
More than 20.000 people, mainly from Tunisia, have already arrived on the tiny southern Italian island of Lampedusa this year – a number that already has surpassed the local population. Earlier this week, the first boats came to Malta with some 800 refugees. It is believed that most of them are from other African countries such as Eritrea and Somalia, escaping Libya where they mistakenly have been mixed up with mercenaries fighting for Colonel Qaddafi.
The latest arrivals have sent alarm bells ringing in Europe, which now is scrambling for a response to the latest influx. "We cannot speculate on the number of migrants who could be trying or expecting to come to the EU; what we have now is just a number present in Libya at the time the conflict started," says Gil Arias, the deputy executive director of Frontex – the EU's border security agency.
The number Arias is referring to is between 500,000-1.5 million people, a rough estimate of the number of migrants present in the North African country when the war there started last month. And the Libyan regime signed a push-back agreement with Italy a couple of years back, in which the authorities in Tripoli received money from Rome for taking back migrants intercepted at sea. The controversial agreement stemmed large inflows of migrants from North Africa into the EU, but since the violent outbreak it has ceased to apply.
As an indirect response, Frontex has already increased the scope of its border operation control in south of Italy - dubbed "Hermes". The operation - which includes 25 migration experts, Dutch and Portuguese planes and Italian maritime assets - was launched in February to oversee the increased number of migrants from Tunisia. Arias admits that the Maltese authorities now have requested help from Frontex as well and notes that the operational plan is under discussion. "The flow of illegal immigration is not decreasing, on the contrary," Arias explains.
In addition, the agency has also widened its second Mediterranean operation - Poseidon Sea. Created to patrol the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, it will now also cover Crete in case migrants seek to enter the EU via Egypt and Turkey. Several southern EU member states remain unimpressed by the work done by Frontex, despite the recent upgrade. The Sicilian member of the European Parliament Antonello Antinoro believes that very little has been achieved and calls the operation "unsuccessful".
He also underlines how he feels that the rest of the EU should do more to help, telling PublicServiceEurope.com: "I think that, apart from some declarations - nobody has shown the necessary solidarity. Especially because the immigrant influx started to be pretty heavy even before the beginning of the Libyan conflict."
Secretary general for the European Council for Refugees and Exile Bjarte Vandvik is, though, critical of the reports about massive exodus scenarios - blaming both the media and populist politicians for the scary headlines. "We are not going to be flooded - there were 200,000 asylum seekers who came to Europe last year and there are 4000.000 border guards," Vandvik says, adding: "We have neighbouring countries on fire; there will be people who flee. We need to be part of the solution in Europe and welcome some of the people, but I see very little willingness to do this and that a great shame."
The Nordic countries and the Netherlands have so far indicated that they are willing to resettle some of the new arrivals. And Vandvik is keen to see more action taken by the European Union, including increased humanitarian support for Egypt and Tunisia - which host many of the people escaping the Libyan bloodbath. "Rather than active planning to protect people, Europe is more concerned about protecting itself from these people," he concludes. The EU's response certainly matches the problems posed in terms of complexity.