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Opinion: Europe's Refugee Challenge

August 10, 2004

In contrast to the case of the German Cap Anamur refugee ship confiscated in Sicily three weeks ago, Italy accepted a boat of 72 African refugees Sunday. The government has now demanded the EU fight smuggling immigrants.

Images of the recently arrived refugees shocked ItaliansImage: AP

Giuseppe Pisanu could have started things earlier. The media circulated dramatic images of half-frozen and haggard-looking refugees who went ashore in Sicily and the news that more than two dozen of Sunday's arrivals had frostbite and were dying of thirst. Of the 110 refugees, 28 died trying to flee from their home countries. Only then did the Italian interior minister call for an EU-wide debate on the migration problem.

Why didn't he use his July talks with Otto Schily about the German humanitarian aid organization Cap Anamur for such a thought-provoking impulse, instead of at the time, along with the German interior minister, deeming the case "a dangerous precedent?"

Was it because Cap Anamur's passengers -- who, due to Italy's immigration policies were forced to stick it out on the ship and for weeks be cared for -- looked well-fed and didn't have the striking cavernous cheeks and deep, inset eyes that the refugees in Sicily in the Sunday news had?

Flüchtlinge auf Cap Anamur
Refugees aboard the German ship Cap AnamurImage: AP

What should such a European policy look like anyway? Joint border patrols with German customs officers on board Italian coast guard boats? The project's already underway -- initiative from Rome could surely expand it. Joint EU regulations to determine where a refugee can apply for asylum already exist, too.

They ensured that the Cap Anamur passengers couldn't apply in Germany. Joint EU regulations on who should be granted asylum, who should be allowed to stay, who should be deported are a possibility. But for a start, Italy could itself adopt asylum legislation that isn't contradictory.

A challenge, not an emergency

That's what Laura Boldrini, the Italian representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, called for on Sunday. She reminded Minister Pisano that Italy is the only European country without such a law. After the Italian interior ministry circulated a press release talking about "drama" and "tragedy," the UNHCR's Boldrini pointed out that the politicians would surely make more progress by speaking of a challenge rather than an emergency.

Frau aus Darfur
A Sudanese refugee cries moments after reaching safety in ChadImage: AP

The influx can't be stemmed anyway, only better controlled, sensible people say. Above all, its causes should be more effectively combated, whether ethnic conflicts and civil wars in Africa and elsewhere or hunger and privation in the poor areas of the world that many people leave to look for a better future.

Pisanu is a man of good intentions and speaks of Europe's historical responsibility in the face of misery in the third world. But he has a difficult partner in the cabinet -- the xenophobic Northern League party -- that used this last particularly woeful refugee transport to call for employing violent measures to stop the arrivals from North Africa, an idea that is not merely cynical and inhuman but would also violate countless international treaties.

The first task for a responsible government in Europe would be to ensure a minimum of western discipline. The next step would be to discuss more sensible EU migration policies and strategies to tackle the causes of migration.

On the other hand, Europe would have had an appropriate occasion for such actions a month ago, if the people from Cap Anamur hadn't been treated like enemies but as partners in such considerations, in the discussion that they wanted to initiate and that Interior Minister Pisanu now demands.

Philipp Kreisselmeier, Bavarian Broadcasting, Rome (ncy)