The sudden jump in arrivals is related to turmoil in Libya, from where most of the migrant-trafficking vessels depart. Another reason is the Italian government’s maritime search-and-rescue operation, Mare Nostrum, launched last October after 368 Eritreans and others drowned off the island of Lampedusa. The prospect of being picked up by the Italian navy has made the journey on an overloaded and often barely seaworthy vessel seem less scary. Grumbling among right-wing lawmakers apart, public and media reaction to the upsurge has been surprisingly muted. Stories of vessels entering Italian waters with four-figure human cargoes, which would have been front-page news a year ago, now barely warrant a mention. Even so, the Italians need help. Thanks partly to the Dublin regulation, which says that the first European Union state where a migrant arrives, his finger prints are stored or an asylum claim is made, is responsible for the claimant, Italy is one of the five EU countries that get 70% of all asylum applications (Germany, Sweden, France and Britain are the others). Ministers have repeatedly and fruitlessly sought EU involvement in dealing with the Mediterranean influx. Most recently, the interior minister, Angelino Alfano, proposed that the EU’s border-management agency, Frontex, should take over the running of Mare Nostrum. But Frontex’s operational budget for 2014 is a mere €55.3m ($74m) and Mare Nostrum costs €9m a month. Moreover, Warsaw-based Frontex is solely focused on border security. In Greece it blocked the land route across the Evros river marking the Greek-Turkish border with a 12km (7.5 miles) metal fence. As a result, a tide of desperate migrants are increasingly using the sea route from Turkey to the eastern Aegean islands, which is shorter than that from northern Africa to Italy, yet full of hazard. Migrant arrivals by sea doubled in the first six months of this year to more than 25,000, according to Greek police, though this number only covers those they picked up. Most of the new arrivals were Syrians and Iraqis, often families with children. Traffickers use small boats to reduce the chances of being picked up on a Greek patrol boat’s radar, but that has costs. Rough seas are frequent, churned up even in summer by strong northerly winds. Many boats capsize. The luckier migrants are dropped off on stretches of inaccessible coastline, or left to drift ashore. Undocumented migrants are not usually assisted by the Greek coastguards, unless their boat capsizes. The UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, has voiced concern about “pushbacks”, the coastguards’ practice of towing migrant boats back into Turkish territorial waters. Twelve people died in January when a boat carrying 28 migrants overturned while being towed at high speed by a coastguard vessel. “These informal forced returns to Turkey are in violation of international human-rights legislation,” says a UNHCR official in Athens. Around 100 such pushbacks happened in the past nine months, according to the UNHCR. The Greek merchant marine ministry denies they take place. Those who make it to Greece risk being detained in a closed camp to await deportation. Some 6,000 migrants are held in half a dozen camps. Médecins Sans Frontières, a charity, recently reported untreated cases of scabies and hepatitis among inmates. Hundreds more are held in filthy, overcrowded cells at police stations. This year the 18-month limit on detention for migrants was extended indefinitely. Peripheral countries are where many illegal migrants first touch European soil. This week more than 1,200 illegal migrants crossed the sea from Morocco to Spain within two days. But Spain or Greece is often not where they stay. Their ultimate destination is usually further north. Many head for France. Last year the country ranked third, after Germany and America, among rich countries for the amount of asylum applications it received (this number includes people arriving by plane and train). Immigration has become an increasingly sensitive subject as a result. “There are fears of uncontrolled immigration, of invasion,” says Cris Beauchemin of the Institut National d’Etudes Démographiques, a think-tank. No one knows how many undocumented migrants live in France. An estimate of 200,000-400,000 bandied about six or seven years ago is not improbable. Last year the authorities had before them almost 66,000 requests for asylum and granted asylum or other protection to fewer than 11,500. Refused asylum-seekers often stay on illegally, or try to make their way to another country. The port of Calais in the north is a favoured way station for people hoping to scramble into the back of a lorry bound for Britain. On May 28th French police cleared out three makeshift camps where around 700 illegal migrants—most of them Afghan, Syrian, Somali, Sudanese and Eritrean—were staying. On July 2nd they turfed over 600 more out of three squats and a feeding centre. In the first six months of the year 7,414 undocumented migrants were arrested in Calais, more than double the 3,129 detained in the same period of 2013, says the local préfecture. Since Nicolas Sarkozy, the then interior minister, closed the Red Cross centre in Sangatte in 2003, northern France has not had any organised facility for migrants. France cannot stop people from crossing its territory if they come in from another Schengen country. But Britain does not belong to Schengen and is neither obliged nor inclined to take them. Natacha Bouchart, mayor of Calais, says Britain’s generous welfare system is the magnet. In fact it is more likely to be its lack of identity cards and stringent labour inspections. The costs of generosity Further north still, Sweden stands out for being particularly welcoming to asylum-seekers. In September 2013 it became the first EU member to grant permanent residence to all its Syrian refugees. Over 8,000 Syrians filed for asylum in the first five months of this year. According to a report by Eurostat, the EU’s statistics agency, published in June, Sweden, with its relatively small population of 9.5m, took in 12.5% of the EU’s total of 435,000 asylum seekers in 2013. The bulk of these were from Syria. Sweden’s generosity was widely lauded, even by the pope, but the strains are showing. Refugees now face waiting times of up to a year for asylum-application interviews in Swedish embassies, and Swedish authorities say they lack the resources to deal with incomers. Sweden, like Germany and France, complains that it deals with more than its fair share of asylum-seekers. But that is no comfort to the poorer countries to the south that lie in the way of many arrivals.
ATHENS, COPENHAGEN, PARIS AND ROME
Economist, Saturday, August 16, 2014