North African Refugees Stuck at Intersection of Europe’s Hope and Fear

Europeans cheered the prospect of democracy in the Maghreb. But the revolutions have challenged Europe's once promising border politics.

By Michelle Chen May 16, 2011

On the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, perched between North Africa and southern Europe, exhausted young men pile onto the shore from rickety boats. Those who arrived before them wait in makeshift encampments under the anxious eyes of local townspeople. No one knows when they’ll be allowed to leave, or who will accept them. This is not what democracy looks like. When the spark of dissent caught fire in the streets of Tunisia last winter, many Europeans cheered at the prospect of democracy dawning on the Maghreb. But now the revolutionary heat is melting other barriers up north, prompting Western Europe to rethink its self-styled image as a democratic beacon in the region. The unrest in Tunisia and Libya have turned Lampedusa into a makeshift Ellis Island. Several thousand have already arrived from Tunisia, and there is a growing wave of migrants from Libya. The latest rush includes many migrants from elsewhere in Africa or Asia, who were working in Libya when war broke out. The desperation of the Libyan exodus reached new depths last week when a boat carrying hundreds of migrants sank off the Italian shore. Yet the tragedy was just a slice of the regional crisis, with more than 750,000 migrants fleeing Gaddafi’s murderous regime and civil war fueled by NATO air strikes. According to the International Organisation for Migration, other migrants are stuck at the borders of Egypt and Tunisia, countries which are themselves experiencing turmoil. The refugees languish indefinitely day after day, awaiting food, medical care, shelter and some kind of international recognition. According to Amnesty International, the migration wave includes hundreds of unaccompanied children. Though these people fall under Italy’s jurisdiction, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi–who has been known to pander to growing nativist sentiment–has called for more assistance from other governments and warned of an oncoming "human tsunami." The image plays well into the narrative that the European right has fashioned to drum up xenophobia–that immigrants are terrorists, criminals, an uncontrollable parasitic horde. A generation ago, Europe was leading the way toward a saner approach to national boundaries, which in some ways contrasted with militarized security phalanx along the U.S.-Mexico border. The Schengen Agreement, which covers many countries including Spain, Italy, and France, moved Western Europe toward a so-called "border-free zone" to help manage migration into and across the continent. Now French and Italian officials are seeking to roll back Schengen and temporarily tighten borders. Denmark has joined the rising anti-migrant backlash by seeking to resurrect its border controls. And while Germany criticized Denmark’s border tightening as unprincipled, last year, it was Chancellor Angela Merkel who fanned the flames of xenophobia by declaring that multiculturalism had "failed" in Germany. Like Berlusconi, French President Nicolas Sarkozy may be pandering to right-wing voters, whose jingoistic fears have alienated France’s Islamic and African communities. Tensions have flared in recent months over France’s new "burqa ban," which effectively criminalized full face veils. As NATO strikes produce still more refugees in Libya, the debate has shifted from cultural symbolism to real lives hanging in the balance, with one continent struggling for liberation as another retreats from pluralism. Daniel Korski of Council on Foreign Relations argued in the Guardian that European societies need to own up to the hypocrisy of selective liberalism:

European governments may talk about democracy and practically every European leader has enjoyed a walk through the banner-clad Tahrir Square. But when they return home, shake the sand off their trousers and start thinking of their voters, their thoughts quickly turn to managing the flow of illegal immigrants who dream of a better life in Europe.

At the tense interface between Europe and the Global South, the southern "Club Med" nations say they carry more than their fair share of migration. At a recent conference on border policy, French Interior Minister Claude Gueant declared, "it’s clear that neither Italy nor France intends to receive these migrants. We are pleased about the new air of freedom and democracy in Tunisia, but there’s no reason for us to accept a population of migrants coming to Europe from Tunisia." It’s the same story on both sides of the pond. Like the U.S., European countries once known for their commitment to openness have convulsed in a wave of economic anxiety, political frustration and fear of a darker Europe. And in both America and Europe, migration is driven by the destructive ripple effects of policies in the North. Migration out of Mexico is in part a byproduct of predatory "free trade" policies, for instance. Europe and NATO’s actions in North Africa and the Middle East–not only the ongoing bombing of Libya but the longstanding support for pet dictatorships–paved the way for the current refugee crisis. Back in 2009, in fact, Berlusconi sealed a "Treaty of Friendship" with Gaddafi that was designed to stop migrants from fleeing Libya for Italian shores. For U.S. observers, Europe today is an object lesson in how even incremental progress toward rational border policies quickly unravel when racist fears pervade domestic politics. The only people who seem to understand both sides of the dilemma are the refugees: they have no choice but to take the sweetness and the pain of revolution in equal parts as they push their way to the border.