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8 July 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 1:51pm

On the migrant crisis, European governments are failing the first test of climate change

By Stephen Bush

A second rescue boat has defied the Italian government and docked at the port of Lampedusa this weekend, carrying 41 people rescued while making the treacherous Mediterranean crossing from Africa to Europe. It comes after the release on bail of Carola Rackete, the captain of the rescue vessel Sea-Watch 3, who ignored Matteo Salvini’s shutting of Italian ports to refugee relief ships to bring 42 people into dock.

Elsewhere, the 65 people aboard the Alan Kurdi have been picked up by a Maltese military vessel and will be settled across the nations of the European Union – for a given value of the word “settled”.

Salvini’s commitment to leaving the world’s refugees to their fate in the Mediterranean is now having diplomatic consequences within the EU, as France, Germany, Malta and Italy squabble over who is honouring international commitments. One reason why the refugee crisis is now a diplomatic one is that Rackete is a German citizen, but it also reflects a broader truth of the crisis: comparatively small levels of migration are upending politics across the continent.

The transformation is most obvious in Italy, where the refugee crisis, coupled with the failures of Matteo Renzi’s centre-left government in office, have ushered in a government with a far-right interior minister in charge of migration and refugee issues. But it has also boosted Marine Le Pen’s National Rally in France and the prospects of the AfD in Germany, and helped to cause Brexit by increasing the saliency and prominence of the issue of immigration in the summer of 2016.

The refugee crisis is caused by two things: climate change, and political instability, the latter of which is in and of itself aggravated by the former. The most tangible consequences of our changing climate for most people are rising food and commodity prices – and it was discontent with those same rising prices that helped trigger the Arab Spring, the bloody conclusion of which in the Syrian and Libyan civil wars still helps drive people to flee to Europe.

Even at the height of the crisis, Italy never had to manage inflows of more than 200,000 people, and the numbers now ought to be small beer across the entirety of Europe, if the people who arrive here are integrated into their host country rather than being shoved into inadequate housing in coastal areas and in neglected suburbs. How will politicians respond if and when temperatures exceed 50C in parts of the world? At the moment, our institutions are failing their first stress test and the signs of improvement are too few.

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