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Thursday, May 30, 2024

As Italy And Greece Burn, Govt Leaders Obsessed About Immigrants

While emergency warnings ordered Romans to stay indoors during daytime, far-right prime minister Giorgia Meloni hosted an international conference in the city to call for urgent cooperation across Europe and Africa — not to tackle the climate crisis, but to control migration. Italian media chose to fiddle while Rome quite literally burned, preferring to report the alarmed coverage abroad than what was actually happening.

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By: Nathan Akehurst

Europe is burning. Hitting almost 110°F, Rome has broken its heat record, set only last year, and some Italian hospitals have reported inpatient numbers reaching COVID-era levels. Special flights headed to Corfu and Rhodes to evacuate tourists from fires rolling across the Greek islands, while the locals are stuck with the consequences. Even the Alps are pushing 100°F. Across the Mediterranean, Algeria recorded the hottest night in African history.

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This is a global crisis, requiring global leadership: extreme temperatures and flooding have struck from the United States to China, Brazil, and the Asian subcontinent. Existing supranational political structures like the European Union (EU) could — and should — be heading up the response. And yet as the earth cracks, the trees blaze, and supplies run out, Europe is looking squarely in the wrong direction.

While emergency warnings ordered Romans to stay indoors during daytime, far-right prime minister Giorgia Meloni hosted an international conference in the city to call for urgent cooperation across Europe and Africa — not to tackle the climate crisis, but to control migration. Italian media chose to fiddle while Rome quite literally burned, preferring to report the alarmed coverage abroad than what was actually happening.

It’s common to hear opponents of migration claim they have to focus on people at home rather than help foreigners. Yet the worst climate-stricken European states like Italy and Greece devote more resources and political time to persecuting, detaining, and attacking people on their shores than to protecting those whose homes are ablaze. Compare, for instance, Greece’s shining new detention camps to its weak record on emergency response.

It would be wrong, however, to pin this problem of inaction solely on Europe’s Border States, themselves wracked by a decade of crisis in which EU-enforced austerity has played no small part. Their governments argue, not entirely unreasonably, that richer northern European states push the responsibility to respond to migration emergencies onto poorer frontier states. Meanwhile, European institutions publicly castigate the human rights records of frontier states (whether EU members, or Libya and Tunisia) while continuing to in practice collaborate in and even encourage abuses.

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For those suffering and dying at the world’s most lethal border, the situation is extreme. But at a statistical level, migration is very far from the existential crisis it is usually presented as in European politics. By comparison, in Colombia — a much poorer country than any EU member state, and one that has absorbed millions of people seeking asylum in the last years — migration still does not hold the existential death grip it does on European politics. Indeed, Europe was perfectly capable of absorbing several million Ukrainians fleeing Russia’s invasion last year. The so-called migration crisis has always been a confected problem. Now, it is an even more dangerous one that robs political focus from the conflagration threatening lives and livelihoods on both sides of the Mediterranean.

People seeking safety are also the first victims of the climate emergency. Firstly, disaster has brought new risks of displacement across the Euro-Mediterranean region — forest fires northwest of Athens have torn into residential communities, while climate shocks have impacted people caught up in conflicts across North Africa. The effects of this year’s weather be they on the Greek tourism industry or Algerian crop yields, may become a much longer-term contributor to people having to move. Its consequences for people already displaced have been brutal; at the US border, bodies of people who collapsed from heatstroke are being recovered.

Across the Euro-Mediterranean region, detention centers, refugee camps, and informal settlements will be stalked by shortages and health risks, and the sun on a warming ocean will give little quarter to the people expected to make desperate Mediterranean and Aegean crossings this summer. Yet this emergency is manageable. With a coordinated effort across countries — and the EU would be strongly positioned to play a leading role, here — people could be fully supported to stay home where they can and leave where they must. Resources can and should be made available on this basis, including investment to protect livelihoods and industry, provide effective disaster relief, and facilitate journeys to short- and longer-term resettlement. Such efforts sit neatly within the project of bringing global temperatures under control in this generation while managing the existing damage.

Politics is about priorities, and Europe’s choices have been clear. Meloni’s twenty-country migration conference did mouth old platitudes about the importance of development cooperation. This project, labeled “Team Europe,” is an invented and unaccountable structure, as one member of European Parliament pointed out, in which Meloni stands side by side with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen. Their two outings this summer aimed at “cooperation” with Tunisia over migration control first and foremost. This is the same Tunisia that in the last few months, following its president’s racist speech against “ethnic replacement” by black migrants, saw numerous attacks on migrants, whose attempts to flee resulted in two hundred deaths at sea in one ten-day stretch.

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The Tunisia deal is just the latest iteration of Europe’s long mission to force states at the bloc’s periphery to act as border police. This has had brutal consequences, from drownings and enslavement in Libya, to the 2022 Melilla massacre at the Spanish-Moroccan border, and the grim EU deal with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Such “externalized” border control is pursued across the political mainstream — the pact with Turkey was spearheaded by current center-left candidate for Dutch prime minister Frans Timmermans. It is frequently framed as an issue of development. The EU provided biometric services to African states ostensibly for voter registration, yet these in fact provided a fingerprint database for EU migration control; it also funded the Rapid Support Forces to prevent migration across North Africa, which have amassed an abysmal human rights record that is being reprised in Sudan’s new civil conflict. Migration control by any means necessary has been the North Star of European foreign policy for nearly a decade now, and its stranglehold is only worsening.

Even from the perspective of Europe’s own security, the primacy of migration control in foreign policy is deeply damaging. When Morocco briefly relaxed its role as Europe’s border guard in anger at a perceived Spanish foreign policy slight, a humanitarian crisis occurred at Ceuta in 2021. That winter, Russia and Belarus were accused of “weaponizing” migration flows at the Polish border to destabilize Europe. Turkey’s recently reelected president Erdoğan has repeatedly attempted to use migration control as a bargaining chip in international affairs.

Europe has been locked in a near-decade-long struggle between more pro-EU neoliberals and more critical right-wingers, regenerated in the Trump era of conservative insurgencies. The Left has largely failed to break into and supplant this divide. The Right’s approach is easy enough to understand: blend racialized paranoia about migration with genuine grievances about the way EU authorities have treated the bloc’s own poorer citizens, in order to build a nationalist bloc.

Comparing migration to the climate may seem arbitrary. But politics is often a zero-sum game. And as time is consumed by the never-ending migration debate, always conducted on terms that empower the Right, attention is sapped from climate diplomacy. The EU has been a significant global leader (compared to the meager competition) on climate targets, but those achievements are not secure, and there is much, much more that can be done.

This is an urgent task for governments across the world. In Europe, it means building a conception of solidarity larger than the EU itself, one that does not deal with Africa by throwing up walls. Rather, it must see both continents as part of a shared region, bound rather than separated by water, its recent history of colonial bloodshed contrasted by a longer history of interdependence.

In practice, this means both rapid decarbonization in the richer countries and financing a just transition in those who cannot afford it. It means applying the finite resources of political capital and diplomatic pressure against carbon giants, not people seeking safety. It means using the green transition to achieve economic justice, not simply to extend neocolonial relations. It means a concerted effort, from the English coast to Greek islands to the Sahara, to put in place flood and drought defenses and emergency relief measures under well-resourced Euro-Mediterranean institutions that can coordinate both incident response and long-term planning.

Such longer-term action includes safeguarding the food supplies and resources people depend on; it also includes rethinking our attitude to migration as we support both the right to stay and the right to move. Most people will not want to leave their homes, much less their countries, but Europe can channel the better part of its heritage — its contribution to the development of the Refugee Convention in the chaos following World War II — to address the needs of those who do.

None of this is straightforward. It will require a delicate balance of patience and urgency; of solving complex problems and simplifying them; and of single-minded diplomacy and engagement across political traditions. It’s a process for communities and campaigns and grassroots movements, as much as politics and big institutions. But the moment demands nothing less. This summer of fires and floods can presage further disasters, food shortages, and threats to life and livelihood — or it can mark the moment that we changed course. (IPA Service)

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