Another 1,800 migrants were rescued in the Mediterranean by the Italian coast guard over the weekend, bringing the number of migrants received by Italy to some 90,000 so far this year (it handled 170,000 for the whole of last year). As Italy still hasn’t been able to get Europe to implement fully a redistribution plan, both the situation there for migrants and the financial strain on Italians continue to worsen.
Meanwhile, with or without permission, many of the migrants keep making their own way to the more economically vibrant north. This in turn creates the kind of dysfunctional political dynamic on display between France and England in recent days, where the migrant crisis festering in Calais has seen as many as 5,000 migrants each day for the last six days try to force their way across the Eurotunnel by hiding in trucks and boarding trains. Eurotunnel authorities warned over the weekend that increased security at Calais, promised by both French and British ministers, would only displace the problem to other, less well-guarded ports. “There are smaller ports in Belgium such as Ostend and in France such as Dieppe, Le Havre and Cherbourg, which are not as secure as Calais. The migrants are desperate. They are likely to look elsewhere.”
The would-be migrants risking their lives to sneak from France to Britain show many uncomfortable truths. First, they are indeed migrants and not, as European rhetoric often has it, refugees. The movement is driven not by acute dangers of a war or natural disaster, but by global inequality; people born in some countries are willing to chance everything to get to a place where, even as illegals suffering every kind of discrimination, they can enjoy much better lives than would be possible at home.
These are sympathetic aims, but they present real policy problems. If potential immigrants are not the victims of a specific problem in one specific area, but rather everyone in Africa who has a worse quality of life than he would even as an illegal in Europe, than that pool is, as we pointed out recently, effectively limitless. (Not to mention those fleeing or coming through Syria, some of whom hail from as far away as Afghanistan.)
Second, the issues become even more complex when you add in the pools of people fleeing one European country to another. The would-be immigrants in Calais are trying to get from France to England, not from Tunisia to Europe. The contrast between France’s stagnant economy and the UK’s more dynamic one is on display here, as arguably is the difference in social integration and access to welfare in both states. Similar contrasts can be seen, albeit less dramatically, across other borders in Europe. The flip side of this dynamic is that, perversely, it boosts the appeal of European extremist parties that argue for making their nations as inhospitable (and therefore unappealing) to immigrants as possible. And even in the political center, it pits national governments against one another within the EU.
Third, this story points to the total breakdown of Europe’s system of border control and immigration. European politicians, like those in the U.S., seem paralyzed and helpless in the face of mass uncontrolled immigration. European institutions appear to have no answer either for the large crowds of desperate people living month after month in shanty towns, or for the thousands crossing by boat and over land from the desperate conditions of Africa and the Middle East. (And at the root of this lie two even bigger problems that Europe doesn’t want to touch with a ten-meter pole: Libya and Syria.)
The migrant crisis is not an easy problem, and none of the answers are good. But control over its borders is a necessary task of an effective state, and ultimately neither in Europe nor in the U.S. will we be able to have generous and humane asylum and migration policies if voters lose faith in the will and the ability of the political leadership to do its clear duty and police the frontiers.