No, Europe Isn’t Being Swamped by Migrants

Last week, several leading European politicians visited the Italian island of Lampedusa, presented as a symbol of a continent overwhelmed by immigrants. But there is no “migrant crisis” — just a political failure to create safe routes for people on the move.

President of European Commission, Ursula Von Der Leyen (L), and the Italian prime minister, Giorgia Meloni (R), meet at an event during the migrant crisis in Lampedusa Island, Italy, on September 17, 2023. (Valeria Ferraro / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The small island of Lampedusa forms something of a natural life raft. While belonging to Italy, it sits around a hundred miles front the Tunisian coast, making it a strategic landing place throughout history — and a natural shelter for people seeking safety.

In just over twenty-four hours last week, over seven thousand people arrived on the island. While crossings have peaked in the low thousands before, this number is unusually large. In completing their journey across unforgiving seas these people were fortunate; in 2015, the route became the world’s most lethal. But even after reaching a supposed place of safety, it became clear their ordeal was not over. Thousands were left sleeping outside in the heat, with little to no food and water, and many were corralled and beaten by police.

For right-wing critics of migration, the emergency became a cause célèbre, stark proof that Europe is being swamped and needs to sharpen her defenses. Breathless speculation on a “naval blockade,” as proposed by far-right leader Giorgia Meloni before her election last fall, circulated afresh. The problem is, almost nothing these critics have said about the topic is accurate.

The local Lampedusan leadership and many ordinary people have mostly not complained of “invasions” but instead welcomed those seeking safety and done their best to provide aid. They have pointed instead to how infrastructure was overwhelmed because despite the community’s efforts, little has been done at the national level to prepare for such surges. Nor would such a surge have taken place if there was a coherent and coordinated response to people in distress at sea. Lampedusans have addressed these issues before — camps have previously housed up to five times the number of people they are equipped to take care of, and transfers to Italy’s mainland have been late and limited.

Furthermore, the Lampedusa emergency is a symptom of the withdrawal, not the existence, of aid at sea. This time last month, we were on a civil search and rescue mission in the central Mediterranean, some way off the Libyan coastline. After our ship rescued 114 people — including people who were in life-threatening medical conditions after drifting without food, water, or fuel for six days — it was detained by Italian authorities. At the time we wrote about how our work was continually frustrated by those who are supposed to assist. The context of such hostility creates unsustainable situations like that in Lampedusa; a European search-and-rescue effort would have been able to distribute people across different locations, avoiding overwhelming pressure on any one place.

Above all, people would not be entering unsafe boats and making desperate journeys to Italian islands in the first place if they had access to international protection, which has been systematically eroded by European governments over the past decade. Europe’s migration-control lobby has the continent in a vicious circle — creating crisis and misery, and then using the spectacular consequences to demand even more of the same.

The Italian Frontier

Italian prime minister Meloni wasted no time in making political capital from the Lampedusa emergency. Within days, her cabinet had agreed to an increase in the limit on detention of migrants from three to eighteen months, as well as the creation of a raft of detention centers in remote areas across the country, with further measures reportedly to come. Such moves presage a dire human rights situation — one need only look at the network of detention camps in Greece to see the miserable and unsustainable conditions in which people are forced to live.

However, this move is a sign of weakness not strength. Last year, in the run-up to her election, Meloni accused rival right-wingers of failure on migration numbers. They are now repeating the tactic against her, charging her with betraying her voters. This is partly opportunism, but partly a reaction to the careful game she is playing on migration.

On one hand, Meloni has sharpened border control measures, and Italy continues to frustrate the work of rescue crews. On the other hand, she has followed previous leaders in admitting that Italy needs labor migration and even adopting an active target of 833,000 new migrant workers over the coming years. This is unsurprising to those who follow migration politics closely — the role that harsh borders play within advanced capitalist economies is usually less about actually preventing migration and more to do with disciplining and holding down the wages and conditions of short-term migrant workers once they arrive — including with the threat of deportation. But what appears to be a contradictory approach has placed her on thin ice.

She has, however, shown a level of initiative on migration that few other politicians have; seizing the issue where others run from it. This has involved intriguing compromises; on the labor target and also through rhetoric on tackling “the root causes” of migration through development aid, acknowledging the role of climate change and poverty in inducing movement.

The actual policy consequences of this focus are not what they seem. What the Italian government means by “development “cooperation is exemplified by the new deal with Tunisia: support for the economy and military forces of a state that has brutally cracked down on refugees and migrants, in return for enacting border control on Europe’s behalf. As the Tunisia deal is hailed as the future of migration “partnerships,” its coast guard leaves people to die in the desert, and its authorities deny politicians and journalists access to scrutinize its actions.

Team Europe Goes to Tunisia

Meloni has set herself apart from European leaders by taking matters into her own hands and moving swiftly and deftly across borders. She has led Europe’s hard right in demanding more funding for walls and weapons from the EU. She has brought North African governments and even parts of the NGO sector into her strategy. And now she has embraced Ursula von der Leyen in Lampedusa, in a visit that represents a convergence of policy that has been a long time coming.

Von der Leyen touched down in Lampedusa days after her State of the European Union speech — effectively a campaign pitch for her second term, which articulated to appeal to a more right-wing composition of the European parliament than the current one. On migration, her centerpiece was a repetition of the benefits of the Tunisia deal hammered out by Meloni’s Italy, von der Leyen, and the Netherlands’ Mark Rutte earlier this year and over the heads of European institutions.

Following Tunisian president Kais Saied’s racist outbursts and violent crackdown on migrants, the EU promised over €100 million in financial and border security and control equipment. As well as shoring up a government on the edge, this agreement and others like it, is a bonanza for the new European arms and security industry, which EU leaders are hoping to foster as part of a broader growth strategy.

Von der Leyen’s announcement that the EU “will speed up supply of equipment and increase training for the Tunisian coast guards and other law enforcement authorities” should be read in the context of how European states have transformed Libya’s “coast guard” into an unaccountable paramilitary with apparent carte blanche to drag back, harass, and shoot at boats across the Mediterranean.

The Tunisia deal also framed von der Leyen’s “ten point plan for Lampedusa.” The plan contains some positive material, such as assisting with the transfer of people out of Lampedusa. However, it is dominated by reheated enforcement and surveillance policies, which have failed even on their own terms and caused endless misery in the process. The new plan again increases the role of Frontex, the EU’s border agency, whose meteoric increases in budget and power have not been checked by the string of investigations into its alleged human rights violations over the past year. The plan also intends to speed up deportations; forcing people on the move back to unsafe countries of origin, mainly in the Sahel region, which is plagued by ongoing conflict and crisis.

Deportations will not prevent movement — those trying to escape nightmare situations will simply try again. Von der Leyen’s final focus is on smuggling gangs. Yet European border policy has empowered the smugglers, sometimes directly through alliances and sometimes through the denial of safe routes that create a market for smuggling in the first place. As Chris Jones, director of watchdog organization Statewatch, puts it: “The situation in Lampedusa has been caused by a dysfunctional migration management model designed to turn a largely beneficial phenomenon — migration — into an unmitigated threat requiring costly and exceptional responses. That model drives authoritarianism and militarization.”

Beyond Italy and EU-level institutions, other member states are also mobilizing around Lampedusa. France has sent troops and drones to its border with Italy, while Germany has suspended its asylum processes. Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, meanwhile, opposed von der Leyen’s ten-point plan on the grounds that any potential redistribution through the EU of people seeking safety would give way to smugglers.

The number of arrivals in Lampedusa — significant for this small island, but not in general terms — are not the issue here. Von der Leyen hopes to push through the EU’s new asylum and migration pact, which includes a limited “solidarity mechanism” based on either supporting border states or redistributing asylum claims. The pact itself also further restricts the right to asylum. And the solidarity mechanism’s option for states to provide funding for border states instead of accepting claims is essentially a charter for subsidizing border state detention architecture.

However, even this moderate move is too much for swathes of northern and eastern Europe. And northern Europe’s rejection of member-state solidarity mechanisms will fuel the Italian and Greek argument that they are being left to go it alone by powerful states. In short, every major actor in Europe is playing politics with human life.

A Continent-Wide Emergency

The proximate cause of the Lampedusa emergency appears to have been the impact of a bout of extreme weather that temporarily forced a halt to many crossings, creating a surge of people looking to flee to safety from Tunisia as soon as a window of possibility opened up. In neighboring Libya, at least eleven thousand were killed within a week and many more displaced by severe flooding. Research from World Weather Attribution demonstrates that human-caused warming made the heavy rainfall up to ten times more likely in Greece, Bulgaria, and Turkey and up to fifty times more likely in Libya, with building in flood plains, poor dam maintenance, and other local factors turning the extreme weather into a humanitarian disaster.

In July, as Italy and Greece prioritized migration control while their forests burned, it appeared that Europe faced a binary choice between focusing on its manufactured migration control crisis or putting those resources into addressing real crises engulfing the region, from rising poverty and inequality to the deepening impacts of climate change. That choice has been brought home again by recent flooding across the Euro-Mediterranean region.

Once again, any serious leadership has been found wanting. The debate on migration has stagnated, continuing to rehash the same case for more walls even as their brutality — and ineffectiveness even on their own narrow terms — is proven over and again. Evidence has been replaced by political expediency; the far right set the tone and the rest of the mainstream political spectrum responds in kind, repeating the same canards either because they are unwilling to articulate a clear alternative or because they also benefit from the current setup.

Moments like the Lampedusa emergency are manipulated to argue for a continuation of the current approach. But read properly, they should not legitimize the case for higher walls, but for coordinated rescue work, infrastructure to ensure everyone can share in the advantages of migration, genuine humanitarian aid, and the restoration of the right to asylum.

A failure to do so affects all of us. Across the continent, those in power use the migration control argument to divide and dehumanize people, to distract from state failures, to create an exploited workforce with limited or no rights in a race to the bottom, and to pour resources into militarized borders instead of addressing the manifold real emergencies we face. Until we can rescue the conversation on migration from its current stagnation, conditions — both for those languishing in Lampedusa and ultimately for many more of us — will only worsen.