by Gwynne Dyer
There are actually fewer migrants than usual crossing the Mediterranean and landing in European Union countries this year: only 37,000 so far, although the flow will increase with good summer weather. But they are nevertheless the ‘last straw’ as far as some EU countries are concerned.
Last week Italy’s new populist government closed all Italian ports to a ship that had just rescued 630 African migrants from the usual overloaded, sinking boats. “Saving lives is a duty, turning Italy into a huge refugee camp is not,” said Matteo Salvini, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister, in a tweet. “Italy is done bending over backwards and obeying – this time THERE IS SOMEONE WHO SAYS NO.”
Eventually Spain volunteered to take the migrants instead, but it may have been a once-only gesture. The Spanish are feeling very put upon too.
Around 2 million migrants have entered Europe claiming to be refugees since 2014, which doesn’t sound like an unbearable burden. After all, the EU has 500 million citizens.
Little Lebanon has let in about the same number, although they amount to almost half its own native population.
But three factors aggravate the situation in Europe. One is that the refugees in Lebanon have the same language, culture and religion as most of the Lebanese themselves, whereas the ones who reach Europe don’t tick any of those boxes.
The second is that only a few of the EU’s 28 countries are carrying almost all of the burden: Italy, Spain and Greece, where the migrant boats arrive, and Germany, which took in almost a million migrants in the single year of 2015.
The final factor is that many of the migrants aren’t traditional refugees fleeing war or persecution. They are simply people who hope for a better life in Europe than the one they left behind, and are willing to face great risks and hardships to get it.
So the humanitarian impulse is blunted by cynicism about the migrants’ motives, and the very unequal distribution of the migrant burden among the various EU member states breeds conflict both between and inside those countries. The politics is already getting poisonous – and this is only a dress rehearsal for the real migrant apocalypse.
Even now many of the ‘economic migrants’ are really climate refugees, although they would probably not use that phrase themselves. The family farm dried up and blew away, so some family member has to go to Europe, find a job and send cash home.
This phenomenon is going to get a lot bigger. Global average temperature reached one degree C higher than the pre-industrial average last year, and it is bound to rise at least another half-degree. It may rise a lot more.
The changing climate will devastate food production in large parts of the Middle East and Africa, and far larger numbers of people than now will abandon their homes and head for Europe. Nobody talks about this in public, but every European government that does serious long-term planning is well aware of it.
This vision of the future colours every decision they make about migrants even now, for the tougher-minded among them know that the borders will eventually have to be closed even if it means leaving people to die. And some, like the Polish, Hungarian and Austrian governments, and now the Italian government as well, have effectively decided to close the borders now.