The refugee crisis facing Europe is more about the European Union (EU) than the migrants problem. Migrants are a perpetual issue and hardly unique to the Mediterranean. What makes the day-to-day drama of thousands of Arab and African migrants breaking through one European boundary after another is that the EU had long claimed to be different.
The Schengen common immigration policy was cited as among the greatest European accomplishments. The EU also claimed that it would treat refugees in a more humane and institutionalised manner than other countries. All of this is now in a shambles. The Schengen agreement has fallen apart as individual European governments have violated many of its clauses.
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Millions of illegal migrants, most of them inspired by economic motives but many by political chaos, move back and forth across the world. The UN put the number of global migrants at over 230 million in 2013. The number of Rohingyas fleeing persecution in Myanmar and dying in the high seas probably exceeds the roughly 3,000 a year who have been dying crossing the Mediterranean to Europe. But Southeast Asian governments are impervious to international media attention and know their own people are hostile to illegal migrants, so the Rohingyas have largely been left to their fate. Obviously, this is not the case with Europe. But Europe is also experiencing considerable economic problems and the rise of anti-immigrant parties in almost every EU nation has made governments skittish about refugees in any form or colour.
The EU could have avoided the media glare if they had united against an earlier Italian naval policy that had held back the refugee tide. Europe would have been even better off if it had sought to use diplomacy or military action to bring the Syrian civil war or Eritrea’s totalitarian dictatorship to an end. These two countries are the primary source of refugees. But the lack of a common foreign and security policy and the EU’s general loss of strategic sensibilities have made Europe, once the seat of great powers, a passive observer of global developments.
The refugee crisis, whose origins go back four or five years, has been notable for the absence of any long-term planning by the EU. This is still the need of the hour as the Mediterranean refugee problem is far from over.
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