Let's open Europe to immigration

Why Pope Francis's visit to Lampedusa highlights a challenge for all of us.

The symbolic power of the trip of Pope Francis to Lampedusa has drawn the world's attention to the persecution and deaths of migrants who attempt to join the European continent. The Pope's visit also highlights a striking paradox: although Europe needs more immigration, public discourse about it is tinted with mistrust and fear.

Indeed, taking into account the demographic evolution in Europe since the end of WWII, and more specifically the steady birth rate decline and the increase in life expectancy, it appears that our continent needs the contribution of immigration to escape the perpetual weakening of social security, the raising of retirement age, and the shrinking of pensions.

Yet in recent decades, immigration policies implemented all around Europe by every party and every political leader regardless of their political backgrounds, have been characterised by distrust. Hence, these policies are extremely restrictive.

The establishment of the European agency Frontex, whose main mission consists in intercepting migrants at the European borders, encapsulates current immigration policies in Europe. Distinguished by its violent interventions, Frontex became the symbol of "Fortress Europe", a closed and self-sufficient continent, a territory remaining unmoved by those who risk their life during long months, who do not hesitate to follow dangerous routes and who hope that a better life awaits them. Last year, more than 500 people coming from Africa died, to our worrying indifference, while attempting to reach Lampedusa. At the very moment of this tragedy, millions of other refugees were shut up in prison-like detention centres.

The "Dublin II" agreements are another illustration of European immigration policies. These agreements enable Member States to send back illegal migrants to the country that they first cross when they arrived on the European territory. Given the fact that Greece is, along with the south of Italy, the main entry point for migrants in Europe, many refugees land in Greece. Such a situation is unmanageable for local authorities and is exploited by Greek neo-Nazis to guarantee electoral and social support for their political party Golden Dawn, and enable them to freely persecute and kill migrants.

Distrust of migrants is now the dominant political position in Europe. It is not a coincidence. This stance embodies the ideological victory of extreme right-wing partisans and is the result of their fierce struggle to impose their viewpoint. As they knew that open antisemitism and racism would not lead them to an electoral victory, many extreme right-wing parties opted for the strategy of stigmatising immigrants and gradually imposed their opinions.

The implications of this ideological success from the far right are extremely painful: on the one hand less social rights for the entire society, and on the other hand more violence and more racist murders just like in Greece.

Similarly, the way in which extreme right-wing street movements and far right political parties complement one another is obvious. When some, sometimes very close to power, claim to be "normalised", they actually ensure the ideological victory of their political family and intend to raise tensions that enable violent acts.

However, we have to understand that more immigration is necessary in Europe not only because we need to ensure high level of social rights, but also because it is a necessity for democracy and human rights in the world.

First, welcoming more immigrants would increase the number of persons who stand to benefit from the rights as guaranteed in Europe. On condition that such a policy would not deprive poor countries of their elites, more people could enjoy democratic values.

Second, the future of Europe and the future of democracy are tightly linked. Stimulating immigration toward Europe could expand the European market, galvanise innovation, create an economy more open to the world and more dynamic and thus enable our old continent to compete with the new economic leaders whose political systems are often too authoritarian. As a consequence, we can imagine that emerging countries would be more attracted to democracy, and thus that democratic values and practices could spread worldwide, as it would be still recognized as an effective model of development.

If Europe wants to meet the challenge of immigration, that is to say face its future, it must win a cultural victory: to overcome distrust.

Such a shift implies the end of indifference to the "penning" of immigrants, the imprisonment of people - who, by the way, often come from former European colonies in Africa and Asia - in detention centers where living conditions are inappropriate for human beings. It also means fighting for equality, to set out a continent free from racism and antisemitism. It means placing democratic values at the heart of the common Europe project; and it also means rejecting austerity dogma as the current leading political principle of European institutions and governments.

The future of our continent and the future of democracy in the world are at stake.

Benjamin Abtan is President of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement - EGAM

Pope Francis visits migrants on the Italian island of Lampedusa. (Photo: Getty.)

Benjamin Abtan is the President of the European Grassroots Antiracist Movement (EGAM).

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“Journalists are too scared to come”: Refugees on the forgotten war in Yemen

Only the few who have managed to flee the war-torn country can reveal the suffering of those left behind.

Last weekend’s BBC Our World report on the humanitarian crisis caused by the Yemen civil war highlighted that not only is the conflict a forgotten war, it is also an unknown war. Since war broke out 18 months ago in March 2015, surprisingly little has been written about the conflict, despite its similarity to ongoing and widely-reported other conflicts in the region, such as the Syrian crisis.

The main conflict in Yemen is taking place between forces allied to the President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, and those loyal to Zaidi Shia rebels known as Houthis, who forced Hadi to flee the capital city Sana’a in February. The loyalties of Yemen’s security forces are split, with some units backing President Hadi and others his predecessor Ali Abdullah Saleh, who is seen as the leader of the Houthi forces.

While these two forces have been at war, separate terrorist groups have been gaining more and more influence on the ground. Opposed by both the Houthis and Hadi’s forces, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) have staged deadly attacks from strongholds in the south and south-east. They are also opposed by Islamic State, which has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings in Sana’a.

After rebel forces closed in on the president's southern stronghold of Aden in late March, a coalition led by Saudi Arabia responded to a request by Hadi to intervene and launched air strikes on Houthi targets.

I have spent the last couple of months working in the “Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, home to refugees from Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Somalia – to name just a few. Having heard very little about the civil war, I was surprised to meet a handful of Yemeni men living inside the camp.

Hussein*, 28, is a film producer and dancer from Yemen who fled the country two years ago and has travelled through 11 countries to reach the Calais camp, where he has been living for just over a month. In a mixture of English and French, he tells me how groups of Houthi militia forcibly try to confiscate cameras and notebooks from both local and international journalists. He knows local journalists, friends of his, who have been threatened, tortured and even killed by Houthi forces.

He pulls out his phone and shows me a picture of his friend, Mohammed, who worked as a photojournalist, documenting brutality as a result of the war. Mohammed’s friends and family have not heard from him since April; the best-case scenario is that he is being detained, but Hussein seems pretty certain that he is dead. As a result, many who otherwise would have reported on the conflict have fled from besieged cities such as Sana’a, Aden and Taiz to the relative safety of the countryside in the north of the country, or have left Yemen altogether.

His friend Jamil, with whom he shares a tent, adds: “from other countries journalists [they are] too scared to come”. He claims that there are only “five or seven” foreign journalists in the capital city, Sana’a and tells me about journalists from the UK, France and the US who, after spending days being held up by countless militarised checkpoints while trying to reach the main cities, are then interrogated and detained by Houthi forces. If they are let go, they are harassed throughout their visit by National Security officers.

After watching his mother die during an airstrike in the city of Hodaida in January, Jamil took the decision to flee Yemen and claim asylum in Europe. He is worried about his father and his friends who are still in Yemen, especially after hearing reports that random border closures and cancelled domestic flights have been preventing crucial aid convoys of food, medical supplies and trained aid workers from accessing the citizens who are desperately in need of humanitarian assistance. Jamil reminds me that Yemen was in economic crisis even before war broke out, with widespread famine and limited access to healthcare or clean water.

Movement within the country is restricted and dangerous, and in the last twelve months alone, four Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) facilities have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes. Writing on 15 September 15, MSF head of mission in Yemen, Hassan Bouceninem spoke of:

“Other health centers, schools, markets, bridges . . . [that] have been attacked and destroyed by airstrikes, shelling, or bombs. Such attacks create direct victims but the war (economic failure, access problems, closing of hospitals, no health staff etc.) also causes a lot of indirect victims within the population.”

Such widespread instability and the resultant lack of access for journalists and aid workers means that it is difficult for the world to know how much Yemen is suffering. Only by speaking to the few who have managed to flee can even begin to grasp the realities of daily life for those left behind.

*Names have been changed to protect the identities of our sources.

Neha Shah has been volunteering in the Calais camp.