In the western Mediterranean Sea, one should not be surprised to see a small rubber dinghy, which looks like a toy, bob in the deep waters, being rowed with the help of a ramshackle oar by someone looking anxious and desperate to reach the shores. The story of illegal migration from North Africa into Europe is not new, though it has recently acquired a new narrative. Last week’s tragedy in which more than 300 lives were lost when a boat with 500 African migrants went down in the sea off Lampedusa in Italy has added a new dimension to the migration problem in Europe.
The tragedy transfixed Europe and drew international coverage of how illegal migration from Africa is putting hundreds of life into danger and laying a complex problem at the doorstep of a continent given to a sense of rights and liberal values. Spain, France and Italy have for a long time received thousands of illegal migrants from Africa. After 2011, a large number of migrants from Syria, Tunisia and Libya have also started crossing over into Europe. This has exacerbated the problem, giving the European nations little choice but to accept the migrants as refugees.
Yesterday, European Commission Chairman Jose Manuel Barroso and Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta reached the island of Lampedusa where they were heckled and jeered by local residents. Barroso’s visit came in the wake of desperate calls by Italians and other southern European nations to Brussels to pick up the tab for the migrants flooding the shores of the south. Though Italy has announced a state funeral for those killed in the tragedy, the resentment among residents of Lampedusa against people trying to gatecrash into the island, closer to Africa than Europe, was at its peak about two years ago. They would not allow migrants-to-be on boats step out of their vessels, and often stood on the shore with placards asking them to go back.
Barroso yesterday pledged ¤30m in emergency funds to improve conditions at the overcrowded Lampedusa immigration centre that has close to 1,000 refugees. The European Union deserves to be criticised for waking up so late to the immigration crisis on its southern rim. It is deplorable that the European Commission has in earnest realised that it needs to address the problem.
The issue was metaphorically described by an Italian politician in the aftermath of the boat sinking: “Lampedusa has become the new Checkpoint Charlie,” he said, referring to the point in the Berlin Wall that was used as a crossing between East and West Berlin. It is time executives and leaders at the EU headquarters in Brussels realised that the crisis at their doorstep is as serious a problem as the fiscal imbalance haunting the bloc’s treasury. If Europe doesn’t act promptly to stem the tide of migrants or doesn’t set up a mechanism to absorb and later integrate them into its society, the problem can worsen into a serious humanitarian and socio-economic malaise•