Italy and the EU Need a Joint Immigration Policy Now

If Italy continues to deal with immigration as if it were just a matter of employment and integration, and not foreign policy, we will achieve nothing.

EU-Italy-immigration

Mass arrivals: Many North African immigrants have been arriving in Italy via the island of Lampedusa. Credit: AP

We may be in the throes of an election campaign but there is a limit to everything. Not just to the nonsense heard from Matteo Salvini but also to the confusion that reigns supreme among the statements made by many of Italy’s moderate leaders.

It should be noted that the boat – yet another one – that sunk yesterday between Lampedusa and Libya was not carrying immigrants but asylum seekers. This is an important distinction because the former can be sent home but the latter cannot. And it is quite clear that the survivors of yesterday’s tragedy belong in the latter category.

They are mostly Sudanese, Eritrean and Syrian. They are fleeing from war zones. They are leaving their homeland not by choice but because they have to. They are doing this to survive, not because they’re seeking a better life.

As such, these people have a legal right to be admitted, supported and respected, whatever the cost, as written in the Geneva Convention of 1951. This wasn’t created to protect the “Africans who steal our work” but anyone forced to leave their country for fear of being persecuted because of their race, religion, nationality, social group or political opinion.

Defenders of Italian identity would do well to remember that the first people to benefit from the convention were European refugees, many of them Italians fleeing the Second World War.

Problem solved then? It has only been clarified because there are still two questions: why have so many refugees been arriving in the past few weeks? And should Italy be taking on most of the responsibility for receiving them.

Let’s start with the first point. The wave of landings on the Italian island of Lampedusa (36,000 people since the beginning of 2014) is the price we pay for the apathy of the entire international community with regards to the political and social revolutions that have been taking place on the southern shores of the Mediterranean since 2011.

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What brought about the current situation is the international community, which turned its back on the deaths of thousands of civilians in Syria and decided to liberate Libya from Gaddafi’s rule but then abandon the county to its fate. From this point of view, every child, mother and man who drowns in the Mediterranean should weigh heavily on the conscience of the five permanent members of the Security Council (US, Russia, China, UK and France) and the leadership of the EU.

The excellent work of the Italian mission “Mare Nostrum” – which operates transport, men and huge economic resources, providing support that is as useful as the Red Cross in conflict zones – can only relieve the tragedy, not resolve it.

On the second point, one could talk at length about the lack of a common immigration and asylum policy; of a lack of funding for Frontex; of Italy’s legislative chaos on this issue (Italy doesn’t yet have a law on asylum!).

However, it’s a matter of principle that needs to be emphasized. If we carrying on dealing with immigration as if it were just a matter of employment and integration, and not foreign policy, we will achieve nothing. Brussels now needs, more than ever, to develop and maintain relations with the nations of the southern shore.

This calls for a decisive stance from the EU’s High Representative for foreign affairs, Baroness Ashton. So where does she stand, what is she doing and what does she think? The answers to these questions could be the basis for relaunching a new Europe. But we’ll talk about that after the election… maybe.

Giuseppe Terranova is deputy editor of the online newspaper West. He has a PhD in politics and comparative law of the euro-Mediterranean region, from Università Kore in Enna, Italy. As an expert on immigration policies, he is a member of the European Centre for International Affairs in Brussels and assistant professor at the department for sustainable development (working with Prof. A Giordano) at Luiss University of Rome. Read other articles by Giuseppe.