As the Irish delegate from the Oireachtas Joint Committee on EU Affairs to COSAC, I recently visited the Sicilian Port of Pozzallo in the province of Ragusa. What I saw there in the well-staffed and well organised reception centre for migrants was the massive scale of the migrant crisis.
Traffickers have learned that desperate people are willing to risk everything including their lives to escape from war, poverty and brutal regimes. The statistics are staggering. In 2014 the port of Pozzallo received 28,168 migrants and 51 deceased. A further 16,414 arrived the following year and in 2016 the port received 19,000 migrants of whom 3,147 were unaccompanied minors. When one considers that Pozzallo is but one of the Mediterranean Ports dealing with this crisis, the 4,000 people that Ireland has agreed to take and the 1,238 that we have accepted to date, is but a drop in the ocean of the overall crisis.
While Ireland is at least prepared to accept this paltry number, many of our EU partners are not. Earlier this week, the European Commission launched legal proceedings against Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic for failing to fulfilling their obligations under the 2015 Migrant Resettlement Programme designed to ease the pressure on frontline states like Italy and Greece. To date Hungary and Poland have taken no refugees while the Czech Republic has taken a mere 12. The so called “infringement proceedings” could in theory result in a €250,000 fine for every Refugee that these countries turn away, but even this has proved no deterrent to the Czech Republic who have since announced their complete withdrawal from the programme.
Ever since an unprecedented wave of migrants reached Europe in 2015, EU member states have either welcomed them with humanity and compassion or turned them away out of hostility, fear and overt racism. Germany for example has taken in over 1million migrants but many from the former eastern bloc have firmly rejected the mandatory relocation quota. The reasons for this are a complex combination of nationalism, xenophobia and historical experiences underpinned in many cases by a deep fear of terrorist activities.
The threat migrants present from a terrorism perspective is I believe, minimal. We know that in Europe most terrorist attacks have been carried out by home-grown terrorists but the fear persists that terrorists could gain entry to EU countries by masquerading as refugees or asylum seekers.
The Irish Government claims that migrants coming to Ireland have been assessed and passed through a robust vetting system. I find it very difficult to accept that this is factual as I have seen first-hand the process for arriving migrants in Sicily. For the most part migrants arrive without any verifiable identification documentation. I have been told that in many cases the traffickers take all documentation from migrants and destroy it. Establishing the name and country of origin of any migrant is a hit and miss process largely dependent on whether the immigration official actually believes the person sitting in front of them or not . I have seen no evidence of robust verifiable screening of migrants and it is difficult to imagine how this could be ensured. I accept that trained immigration personnel may be able to identify the odd questionable individual but there is simply no way of being sure.
For example, for the most part the name given by any migrant is accepted. Fingerprinting and photographing of migrants is carried out simply to ensure that where a migrant is deported he or she will be identifiable should they try to re-enter through another port.
In the migrant crisis debate, the so called “economic migrant” is often pitted against the “Refugee or Asylum Seeker” Collectively, we feel obliged on humanitarian grounds to look after those fleeing famine, wars or oppressive dictatorships. As citizens and as Nations we are motivated by a strong moral imperative to support the asylum seeker while the “economic migrant” is often viewed as an opportunist seeking an avenue to an improved economic life in Europe.
I believe we need to acknowledge our own role in creating the very economic conditions from which these migrants are fleeing, we need to show up and accept that through the capitalistic greed of the developed world we have plundered the resources of those very countries from which these migrants are now fleeing. It is all too easy to say “not in my back yard” when the issue of migrant resettlement arises but we need to put our money where our mouths are and stop supporting the exploitative economic regimes that use cheap and sometimes child labour to supply our High Street Stores and brands. We have to question the link between the massive prices we pay for high street goods, the slave wages that are paid to those who make them and our rejection of the “economic migrants” who flee those countries and economies to make a better life in Europe. Economic migration is born out of the deep inequality this world is happy to embrace.
Today on World Refugee Day we need to look beyond how many or how few migrants Europe or indeed any developed economy can accommodate, we need to remind ourselves that despite the hundreds of aid and intervention programmes, the world still faces an unprecedented famine threat driven by conflict and callous greed of unscrupulous politicians and war lords.
But there are solutions. If the problem is often political so too is the answer. If we in the developed world are to manage economic migration we must invest in the developing world. We must invest in infrastructure, roads, power supply and education. The increased availability of soft loans as development instruments would achieve more than simply locking down our borders in a vain attempt to close the flood gates of migration as smugglers will continue to probe looking for weaknesses. Unless we in the developing world commit to a more equal world, migration will not just challenge the unity of the EU but will ensure a return to the defensive nationalism and territorialism that paved the way for two World Wars.