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Wednesday, 18 December 2013

European Union blames and shames Italy for abuses of refuge seekers on Lampedusa: Northern European countries do have a point, when they state that Italy should take care of its own business.

The British press agency Reuters published a disturbing story about the treatment of (a.o.) Syrian refugees on the Italian island Lampedusa. These refugees are being held under very poor cirumstances, in a shelter that seemingly neither offers sufficient room nor enough privacy for the many people in it.

Today, video footage emerged – shot by one of the refugees with a telephone– which showed how refugees were forced to undress in a mixed zone with men and women without any privacy whatsoever, and how they were sprayed with an anti-scabies agent. The pictures were quite discomforting.

When EU officials watched this video, their reaction was one of shock and dismay.

Here are the pertinent snips from the Reuters story:

The European Commission threatened Italy with legal action on Wednesday for possible breaches of the EU's rules on granting asylum, over its treatment of migrants arriving from Africa on the island of Lampedusa.

A video showing migrants standing naked in the cold while being sprayed for scabies at a detention center stirred outrage in Italy on Tuesday.

The European Commission's home affairs chief, Cecilia Malmstrom, said the EU executive was investigating Italian practices in detention centers.

The Commission could take Italy, which bears the brunt of illegal immigration from North Africa, to court over its adherence to EU rules on acceptable conditions in detention centers, among other issues, officials said.

Much of the debate within the bloc centers on whether it would be better to focus border control efforts on rescuing migrants from the Mediterranean or on strengthening preventive measures and cooperation with countries in North Africa.

Some EU countries, including Denmark, Luxembourg, Greece and Spain, have cautioned that boosting EU search and rescue operations could persuade more migrants to attempt the dangerous crossing through the Mediterranean.

Southern EU states including Italy have asked for what they see as a fairer spread of the burden of dealing with migrants and more EU funding, but the bloc is divided on how to deal with the problem. Northern EU states argue they already grant asylum to more people than their southern neighbors.

When I read this story today, I was disturbed by the treatment of the asylum seekers by the Italian government officials.

On the other hand, I thought initially that Italy had a point when it complained to the other (Northern) countries in the EU, that these countries didn’t offer refuge and hospitality to the substantial numbers of asylum seekers from North-Africa and the Middle-East.

Consequently, I wondered if the Northern European countries were telling the truth, with their answer that they already accomodated more asylum seekers than the countries in the South (second red and bold paragraph). 

Curious about this, I consulted the splendid Eurostat database to look for answers to this question. I collected the official number of asylum seekers for the first nine months of 2013 for the typical Northern and typical Southern EU countries and divided this number through the official inhabitant numbers of these countries.

This yielded the following chart:

Percentage of asylum seekers per inhabitant
Graph by: Ernst Labruyère
Data courtesy of Eurostat
Click to enlarge
When you look at this chart, you have to come to one conclusion:  in general – with an exception for Malta – the number of asylum seekers in the Northern European countries is indeed (much) higher than the number in the Southern European countries.

The number of asylum seekers in Greece and Italy – two typical countries where boat refugees from North Africa come ashore to look for asylum – are in the lowest half of this chart, when it comes to numbers of refugees per inhabitant. Not even to mention Spain and Portugal…

This makes that Italy’s complaint looks a little like ‘crocodile tears’.

Of course, the impact on the island of Lampedusa, in Ceuta and Melilla (Spain) and on various Greek islands can be much bigger than this chart reveals. We should not forget that. 

However, it seems that the citizens of these islands should look at their own central government first and then at the EU. That (especially) the Greek economy is in a deplorable state currently, is of course an extenuating circumstance.

However, this is to a much lesser degree true for Portugal, Spain and especially Italy.

After looking at this chart, I made a 180 degree mental turn: I also agree that Italy should stop whining and give these refuge seekers a decent refuge camp, where they feel safe and where they have some minimal amount of privacy.

And about the first red and bold paragraph: as long as the EU either looks like “the land of milk and honey” for many North African people or looks like a safe refuge for (especially) the Syrians and Lybians that are sick and tired of the civil wars in their countries, you can’t blame people that they try to enter the EU by boat.

The options that are presented here are a choice between rescuing people from the sea and making sure that people don’t go to the sea at all. 

I prefer the latter, when the EU puts the focus on improving the economic and political circumstances for the people that live in North Africa, instead of keeping them simply out of our backyards. African shores are no distant shores anymore and the EU cannot act as if it’s not our problem at all. 

However, when I look at the current tendencies in the countries of the EU, I cannot avoid the thought that the preventive measures would have a substantial N.I.M.B.Y character (not in my backyard).

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