Global Development Institute Blog

Tanja R. Müller, Reader in Development Studies, Global Development Institute

Remember 2015? Then, a perceived unprecedented number of refugees and migrants entered Europe, more than one million people according to available data, while almost 4000 drowned on their journeys. We saw long queues of people stranded at the borders of mainly Eastern European countries, pictures that for many evoked scenes of refugee movements after WWII.

But the year 2015 also saw a courageous German chancellor, Angela Merkel, deciding against many in her own political party to open German borders and do the morally right thing: let those stranded in, to be welcomed and processed in Germany. Yes, initially the German asylum system as well as many of its welfare institutions were somehow overwhelmed, but the slogan ‘we will manage’ and a wave of bottom up solidarity by German citizens, NGOs and the business sector seemed to vindicate that optimism, and localised solutions were mostly found for those in peril. And in fact, Germany has managed pretty well, even if right-wing propaganda suggests otherwise.

The situation now, three years later, could hardly be more different. In a general election last year, a right wing party got a by German standards high percentage (almost 13%) of the vote, and the poisonous agenda of its anti-immigration stance has started not only to infiltrate but to distort and poison all wider public debates. In fact, it has captured public discourse in a way that almost no topic makes the national news, but daily shots at migrants, refugees and in particular at Merkel’s humane response to the events of 2015 dominate – even if actual arrivals of refugees and migrants has been paltry since 2016. But now a rift goes through German politics including right through Merkel’s own party – her right-wing interior minister advocates in favour of turning refugees away from German borders unilaterally, while Merkel works for a joint EU solution – and the rift might bring down the government and her chancellorship to a premature end. This unilateral move would not only contravene EU laws on the freedom of movement (the same laws Brexiteers object to), but more importantly make the right-wing fringe suddenly the driving force in German policy, with wider implications for the EU as a whole.

It could ultimately mean the end of the European values that Merkel tried to uphold and defend quite courageously in 2015 – even if even then EU borders were already deadly for too many. The symbol of a visible breakdown of these values can be seen in the recent journey of the Aquarius, a migrant rescue ship that carried 629 people and was forbidden to enter the nearest port in Italy by Italy’s new government that includes a far-right anti-immigration party that vowed to close all Italian ports to ships carrying refugees, in addition to starting deportations – a policy move not dissimilar to the ‘hostile environment’ policy Teresa May introduced as Home Secretary when she among other things sent buses across the land basically telling refuges and migrants to get lost, or else!

For the Aquarius a solution was eventually found in that Spain’s new socialist government agreed to accept the vessel – even if that involved a transfer and arduous journey for those on board. Not surprisingly, the Aquarius has since been followed by two other ships in similar limbo, and a general solution is nowhere to be seen. These latest events demonstrate once more the inability of Europe to act as a community of values, and to agree on a system that shares the care for refugees and migrants among all members states in a way that does the least harm. In fact, the UK was a front-runner in jeopardising any such system, with its refusal to take in refugees at the height of the Syrian war. Maybe Brexit voters should re-consider, now that the rest of Europe seems to follow the UK’s ‘putting up the drawbridge’ example? Instead of having ‘jungle-camps’ in places like Calais, keep refugees circling around on ships until the decide to turn back?

This is not the first time that ‘Europe kills’, literally or figuratively, as the number of drowned refugees each year attests to. And to now put the sole blame on Italy’s new right-wing government is not entirely fair – but rather disingenuous. Italy has in many ways been left alone to deal with refugee arrivals for far too long, and many of its coastal and island communities have in fact been marvellously welcoming, often sharing meagre resources.

It is in many ways a sad beginning for refugee week. I continue to believe in the wider dynamics of bottom up solidarity, like those shown for example on Italian and Greek islands, or at German railway stations, in its parks and homes, and in so many other places all over Europe. But it might also be time to acknowledge that if we are living at a juncture where the consensus that we have a moral duty towards the suffering stranger is evaporating, other means of political action might urgently be needed. Otherwise, our own humanity is at risk.

Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole