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Refugees in the Age of Aquarius
by Rene Wadlow
2018-06-20 08:05:40
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The 629 refugees and migrants mostly from sub-Saharan Africa on the refugee ship Aquarius have ,highlighted in a dramatic way the flow of migration from Africa and the confused responses from the European Union (EU).  On 5 June, respresentatives from the Interior Ministries of the European Union states met to try to work out a common policy toward refugees and migrants.  It is an issue that the EU states have faced at least since 2014 when, in addition to refugees from Syria and Iraq trying to escape armed violence, were added "economic" and "climate change refugees" many from Africa.

refugees0001_400There have been a number of EU governmental policies in efforts to cope with the issue.  An early policy was with funds to help Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan which hosted the bulk of the refugees from the fighting in Syria and Iraq.  Most of the Syrian and Iraqi refugees are still in the three countries, often marginalized and with no real future there.  Thus refugees started moving toward Western Europe where economic prospects were better.

As part of procedures concerning earlier and much smaller refugee movements, the EU had drawn up the "Dublin rules" - named after the city in which they were approved.  The Dublin rules stipulate that it is in the first EU state reached by the refugee that the refugee must be processed.  In practice this has placed a burden on Greece and Italy where many of the refugees first landed.  The facilities of these two governments were inadequate to do the processing.  Many refugees tried to move on to other countries without having been processed  - often heading to Germany and France where economic conditions are relatively favorable. 

The European Commission tried to introduce a system of "quotas".  Each of the then 28 EU states were assigned a certain number of refugees based on their population, economic status, and a few other criteria.  The quota system has never worked as envisaged.  Certain EU states, especially those of Eastern Europe, refused the idea of quotas.  In fact, they tried to refuse having any refugees at all.  Other EU states did not refuse publicly but in practice took in many less than the quota goals.

Since 2015, and in some countries before, there has been a growth in strength of anti-immigration currents expressed within political parties.  The anti-immigrant arguments are nearly all the same - a narrow, usually Right Wing, nationalism, currently often with an anti-Islamic coloring.  These political currents have grown in strength and are now major political factors.  The recent elections in Italy have brought a coalition government to power.  While the two parties disagree on a number of fundamental issues, they both agree that there are too many refugees and migrants in Italy and that a good number should go away or be deported.

With this as background, the Aquarius events take on their symbolic character.  The Aquarius is jointly operated by Médecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) and SOS Mediterranée. MSF was founded largely by French doctors who had been in Biafra during the Biafra-Nigeria civil war and who had seen first hand the suffering of people, especially children, in armed conflict situations.  Much of its work is carried out by doctors who can give short-time volunteer efforts such as during vacation periods. SOS Mediterranée has been created more recently as a European non-governmental response to the large number of persons trying to reach Europe across the Mediterranian, often in over-crowed and inappropriate boats.

Many of the sub-Saharan Africans try to reach Europe by first crossing Libya, a disorganized country filled with dangers.  Some of the EU states hope that Libya will be able to stop migrants from going beyond, and have given funds to increase the Libyan coast guard and to develop "retention camps". Since Libya has a good number of problems of its own, the idea of a "Libyan solution" to the migration flow is unrealistic.

By 8 June 2018, the Aquarius had 629 migrants aboard, of which 7 were pregnant women, 11 children, and 123 unaccompanied minors.  They had been rescued off the coast of Libya or transferred to the Aquarius from Italian  navel units which had first picked them up.  Under traditional maritime law, people in danger  at sea should  be landed at the nearest port.  However, the new and anti-immigration Italian Minister of the Interior argued that since they were on the Aquarius they were no longer in danger. Thus Italy refused that they come ashore.  Perhaps Malta, the Italian authorities suggested.  Malta replied "It is not our business".  Fortunately to avoid the Flying Dutchman myth, the "Good Samaritan" role was played by Spain which on 7 June had a new, more Socialist government.  The new Foreign Minister of Spain Josep Borrell had been a deputy in the European Parliament and active on European-wide migration issues.  He gave permission to the Aquarius to dock in Spain.

Refugees and migrants in the Age of Aquarius are a crucial issue.  The consequences of climate change are most likely to increase the number of potential migrants.  2019 will see elections to the European Parliament from the 27 remaining members.  The United Kingdom will not participate even if the process of withdrawal from the EU is not completed.  Migration is likely to be an important focus of debate.  The anti-immigration forces are already preparing.  It is up to us in the humanist, cosmopolitan tradition, to be as ready and active.


Rene Wadlow, President, Association of World Citizens

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