WORLD attention is rightly focused on America’s controversial “zero tolerance” immigration policy and the US decision to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council.

The US moves have been criticised by many in Europe. But in fact, governments on this side of the Atlantic are engaged in a similarly epic struggle over immigration, human rights and the rule of law.

Make no mistake: the battle over immigration raging across the continent is for the soul, hearts and minds of Europeans. After a temporary lull, migration is back on the top of the European Union’s political agenda. And the debate is fiercer and more corrosive than ever before.

Take a look: The perils of Pakistani migrants heading to Europe

Europe’s xenophobic and nativist far-right parties — both in government and outside it — are leading the conversation. And winning it.

Their get-tough approach to migration and asylum has seeped into the agenda of most mainstream European political parties. Very few politicians dare to contest the false assertions that migration is bad for Europe because it threatens the European way of life, leads to increased unemployment, crime and terrorism.

Fanning the fires of the constant diatribes against migration and migrants is US President Donald Trump. In recent tweets, Trump made the false claim that crime was up in Germany since the 2015 arrival of refugees from the war-torn Middle East.

The US leader has many fans in Europe, including the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban who has a special bee in his bonnet about Muslim immigrants and Islam in general.

But others are not far behind. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, a right-wing conservative who is in coalition with the far right, has called for the formation of an anti-migrant “axis of the willing” with Germany and Italy to push for more restrictive border policies at an EU level.

Set to take over the EU presidency from July to December, Kurz has promised to pursue his hard line on migration at the EU level in the coming months. In a move, which made headlines across the world, Italy’s new populist right-wing government recently closed its ports to the Aquarius rescue ship carrying over 600 refugees.

The boat, whose passengers included children, pregnant women and people needing medical attention, was welcomed by Spain’s new centre-left Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez.

Now, Italy is back in the spotlight with its interior minister Matteo Salvini’s call for a census of the country’s Roma community with the aim of expelling those who are not Italian citizens. And German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling coalition remains under threat following her interior minister Horst Seehofer’s demands that Germany should be able to expel registered asylum seekers to other EU countries.

Importantly, these and other demands by the increasingly rabid right- wing politicians in Europe are clearly illegal under national and international legislation, a fact which is being highlighted by experts.

Any plan that suggests a blanket return of asylum seekers at the border of a European country would come up against both EU law and the 1951 UN Refugee Convention, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a think tank. A census based on ethnic background is against Italian law, with many saying the plan evoked memories of race laws in 1938.

Still, slowly but surely, however, despite the protests from some, EU policies are moving further to the right. EU leaders next week are set to endorse plans to create so-called “regional disembarkation platforms” or offshore facilities outside the bloc — possibly Tunisia — where “economic migrants” would be weeded out from refugees who are “in need of international protection”.

The aim would be to “reduce the incentive to embark on perilous journeys”.

Divisions continue to simmer on other issues. The introduction of compulsory refugee relocation quotas is vigorously opposed by Hungary and other central European countries and proposals for a long-overdue overhaul of the Dublin system, which assigns responsibility for processing asylum claims, are still deadlocked.

However, the EU’s new seven-year budget includes an array of new tools, including a “migration management window”. An investment fund for African countries has been set up to “tackle the root causes of migration”.

Italy, with EU support, has been providing training and logistical support to Libya’s coastguard in a bid to better patrol the Mediterranean. And spending on migration control is set to account for €9 billion of the EU’s development budget between 2021 and 2027.

The numbers of asylum seekers knocking on European doors have fallen compared to the 2015 crisis. The EU’s asylum office counted 728,470 asylum applications in 2017, a 44 per cent reduction on the 1.3m applications in the previous year. But those figures are still far higher than the pre-crisis levels; around 460,000 people applied for asylum in EU countries in 2013.

The concern is that with wars still raging in Syria and Yemen and high population growth rates in sub-Saharan Africa, the number of migrants seeking to come to Europe is likely to stay high.

European politicians know this, just as they know that Europe needs migrants to prop up the continent’s economies and declining social welfare systems. With one eye on the next election, few have the moral courage, however, to stand up and say so. It’s easier to rant and rage. And mislead the public with distracting headlines and over-the-top, blatantly illegal proposals.

—The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels

Published in Dawn, June 23rd, 2018


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