There are actually fewer migrants crossing the Mediterranean and landing in European Union countries this year than in any other year: only 37 000 so far. But they are nevertheless the “last straw” as far as some EU countries are concerned. Patience is running out.
Last week, Italy’s new populist government stopped a ship that had just rescued 630 African migrants from the usual overloaded, sinking boats from coming into any Italian port. “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.
Eventually the even newer socialist government of Spain volunteered to take the migrants instead. But it may have been a once-only gesture: the Spanish are feeling very put upon too.
About two 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. Turkey, with only 80 million people, has taken in about two million Syrian refugees. Heroic little Lebanon has let in about the same number, which is equal to almost half its own native population.
But there are three factors that aggravate the situation in Europe. The refugees in Lebanon have the same language, culture and religion as most of the Lebanese themselves. Even in Turkey they tick two of the three boxes. The ones who reach Europe don’t tick any.
The second exacerbating factor 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. (That generous act is probably what cost Chancellor Angela Merkel a clear victory in last year’s election and forced her to cobble together a shaky coalition instead.)
The final factor is that many of the migrants – maybe as many as half – 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.
About half the people on the migrant ship that Italy turned away, for example, were from Nigeria or Sudan. Neither country is at war, and Nigeria is actually a democracy.
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, which is not due for another decade or two.
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, and there are no jobs in the local towns, so some family member has to go to Europe, find a job and send cash home.
This phenomenon is going to get bigger. Global average temperatures reached one degree Celsius higher than the pre-industrial average just last year – and it is bound to rise at least another half-degree even if we do everything right starting tomorrow morning. It may rise a lot more.