North African immigrants, Lampedus. (Photo by Extremismalert)
North African immigrants, Lampedus. (Photo by Extremismalert)

The number of migrants trying to reach the European Union has increased sharply over the past two years. 90,000 migrants have arrived in Italy alone since January this year.

On Wednesday 5 August, the Italian coastguard plucked a further 400 refugees from the Mediterranean, after their overcrowded boat sank off the coast of Libya. According to some accounts, 200 people had already drowned before help arrived.

Around 188,000 migrants have made the crossing from North Africa to Europe so far this year, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which puts the death toll in the Mediterranean at over 2,000 since January 2015.

“Migration is not a popular or pretty topic. It is easy to cry in front of your TV set when witnessing these tragedies. It is harder to stand up and take responsibility,” top EU officials said in a statement.

“What we need now is the collective courage to follow through with concrete action on words that will otherwise ring empty,” said the statement issued by First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, EU foreign affairs head Federica Mogherini and Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avrampoulos.

While the Mediterranean countries are the first port of call for a large number of migrants fleeing war, persecution and poverty in Africa and the Middle-East, Europe’s other borders are also coming under increasing pressure from a rising tide of migrants.

Italy, Greece and Malta have borne the brunt of the influx and Rome has led demands that its EU partners do more to share the burden.

In April, after an even worse disaster estimated to have cost 800 migrant lives, the 28 European Union leaders agreed to take urgent action — to step up rescue efforts at sea and to try and halt the problem at source, including the use of limited military action against people traffickers in Libya.

The bloc failed however to agree last month on how to distribute 40,000 mostly Syrian and Eritrean migrants from overstretched Italy and Greece.

Member states offered to take in take some 32,000 plus another 22,500 Syrian asylum seekers currently in camps outside the EU. Given the numbers involved and the scale of upheaval across North Africa and the Middle East, many believe the problem dwarfs such measures.

In their statement, the three EU officials said despite the bloc’s efforts, “it is not enough and will never be enough to prevent all tragedies”.

“There is no simple, nor single, answer to the challenges posed by migration… nor can any member state effectively address migration alone. It is clear that we need a new, more European approach.”

But the problem is not only linked to the Mediterranean. In the Balkans, thousands of people flee Kosovo every month, in the hope of finding employment and a better life in the EU. Most of these migrants pass through Serbia, before illegally crossing the Hungarian border and filing asylum applications in the EU. Germany alone registered 3,630 asylum applications from Kosovan migrants in January this year.

>> Read: Poverty spurs mass migration from Kosovo

In Eastern Europe, Ukraine’s ongoing conflict with pro-Russian separatists has displaced 1.5 million people, sparking fears that any escalation in the fighting could lead to a wave of mass immigration in the EU, while further north, the situation is also deteriorating in Calais. Thousands of migrants desperate to reach the United Kingdom have attempted to cross through the Eurotunnel on foot, and at least ten have died since June.

Anti-immigration protests

Faced with the scale of the crisis, nationalist parties have become increasingly vocal in their opposition to policies of resettlement and solidarity.

Around 250 Latvian nationalists assembled in front of the government headquarters in Riga on Tuesday 4 August, to demonstrate against European refugee resettlement plans. The Baltic state of 2 million inhabitants agreed to accept 250 refugees over two years, as part of the EU’s controversial plan to distribute 40,000 asylum seekers across its 28 member states.

The demonstrators, many of whom were members of extreme right groups, held banners with slogans like “white genocide” and “stop Islam”.

Italy is currently hosting more than 80,000 migrants, mostly in the poorer Southern regions. But residents in a Roman suburb and a village in the North of Italy last month set fire to mattresses at migrant housing centers, in protest against the “Africanization” of their communities. The two centers planned to house a total of 120 refugees.

Violence against immigrants is also on the rise in Germany. The German Interior Ministry reported 173 criminal offenses by members of right wing organizations against building that accommodate asylum seekers between January and June 2015.

Limited solidarity

Immigration has overtaken unemployment and the financial crisis as the number one concern for EU citizens in recent months, according to a study by Eurostat. Many European governments have taken strong anti-immigration measures in order to mollify their increasingly worried voters.

Hungary’s response to the migrant crisis has been to build a 175 kilometer long, four meter high fence along its porous border with Serbia. Over 70,000 asylum seekers, largely from the Balkans, crossed this border in the first six months of 2015.

In a bid to speed up the construction of the fence, Viktor Orban’s government has drafted 500 unemployed people to help with the effort. These laborers will receive €164 a month and two meals a day, and those who refuse to work on the project could lose their unemployment benefit.

Berlin launched an advertising campaign in the Albanian newspapers in June, in an attempt to discourage would-be migrants from leaving their country. “Do not ruin your children’s future by abandoning your livelihood and your home! Your situation will only be more difficult when you return to Albania,” the German message reads.

>> Read: Ad campaign in Albania: German embassy warns against ‘economic asylum’

The United Kingdom’s conservative government, which is critical of free movement within the European Union, has also joined calls to step up anti-immigration measures in response to fears over the growing number of migrants arriving in the “Jungle” in Calais, in the hopes of boarding vehicles bound for the UK.

Juncker calls for solidarity and warns against populism

The President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, called on EU leaders not to be influenced by populist rhetoric in their responses to the unfolding drama.

“There are times in politics when you must not follow the populists, otherwise you will end up becoming a populist yourself. But the voters, attracted by the simplistic arguments of the populists, will still vote for the populists,” the Commission president warned. “We have to counter what they say; we cannot allow ourselves to be blinded by the populist thinking that is present in all our countries.”

Jean-Claude Juncker said he was “disappointed” by the resistance EU member states had shown when the principle of solidarity was put to the test. EU governments agreed last month to resettle 22,504 refugees from Syrian camps, but interior ministers could not agree on plans to share out a further 40,000 asylum seekers, in order to relieve the burden from centers in Greece and Italy, where services are already overwhelmed by the number of arrivals.

Reform proposals

In April, the European Commission proposed a series of measures aimed at reforming the European Union’s asylum process. This included a quota system for distributing asylum seekers across the 28 member states. The proposals were rejected by EU leaders, but the Commission still hopes to change the situation.

“Ministers have an obligation to act,” “We made, which were still modest, when you consider the scale of the problem. We proposed a compulsory system for the distribution of asylum seekers and people that deserve international protection, but they [the member states] did not follow us and

“Ministers, unlike citizens, have an obligation to act,” said Jean-Claude Juncker. “We made far-reaching proposals, which were still modest given the scale of the problem,” Juncker said in the interview. We proposed a mandatory system to redistribute asylum seekers and people who need international protection, but the member states did not follow us and we were forced to seek an agreement on a voluntary basis,” he explained.