What do you do when hundreds of thousands of immigrants start to flee north to your country from collapsing states and murderous gangs, taking life-threatening risks to do so? America isn’t the only nation facing this dilemma today—so is Italy, and to some extent all of Europe. As an editorial in the Financial Times explained yesterday:
Italy has been particularly stretched by its laudable desire to deal humanely with the flow. Following the deaths of 366 people in 2013 when their boat capsized off the Italian island of Lampedusa, the Italian navy has run a search-and-rescue operation called Mare Nostrum, which focuses on saving lives. It has rescued more than 100,000 to date. […]Next month…Brussels will introduce Operation Triton, its own humanitarian naval operation around Italian shores, under the aegis of Frontex, the union’s border agency.This is, however, more of a band aid than a solution. Only a minority of EU member states will contribute. Some, such as Britain, argue that such operations are counterproductive, encouraging the refugee flow because migrants know they will be rescued.
Europe’s debate about Mediterranean migration shares many features with the conflicted U.S. response to its recent border crisis, but is further complicated by the Schengen Zone rules. Once a refugee reaches Italy, there is no border control with, say, France—but France can’t control Italy’s refugee policy.More broadly, the Europeans are dealing with the same array of ugly choices facing all accessible, developed countries today. Those fleeing oppression deserve sympathy, but there are only so many people a given area can take in. Coming to their rescue is the humanitarian response in the short term, but also encourages others to follow, undertaking a dangerous journey they may not survive. And after they are brought to safety, are they to be returned to their chaotic homelands, where the government is in complete collapse? Allowing them to stay could incur considerable public expense and add to the allure of the perilous Mediterranean crossing. Of course, the choice to ignore them brings a wrenching moral burden of its own, even if the goal (deterring others from risking their lives) is humane in the long run.Ignoring them seems cruel; accommodating them, potentially unsustainable. For Europe, and Italy in particular, facing rising populist movements and financial challenges far beyond the economic difficulties of the United States, these questions will be particularly nettlesome going forward.