From Twitter revolutions to migration

Father Tom Joyce CMF| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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While Western nations look on the Facebook/Twitter revolutions in North Africa and the Persian Gulf with a number of concerns—Israeli-Palestinian relations, fundamentalist Islam, access to Libyan oil, the character of new democracies—what immediately rattles Western Europe is the specter of a massive wave of refugees and  migrants. United European ministers met this week in Brussels to take up the problem.

Northern Africa, especially Morocco and Libya, has long been a bridge to Europe for migrants from deeper in Africa. The jump to Spain or Italy is short and well traversed routes have been established. Arab coyotes (people smugglers) are as adept as their Mexican counterparts and as ruthless. The passage of the migrants to Europe is as harsh and painful as that from Central America or Oaxaca in Mexico to Arizona—a veritable way of the Cross. (Read about Notre Dame’s Father Dan Groody’s interactions with East African migrants in Morocco in America magazine.)

Western Europe has long known migration. Bringing diverse migratory peoples together through evangelizing and Christianizing Celtic, Germanic, Slavic and Northern wandering tribes created Europe. Pope Benedict XVI even insisted that this be acknowledged in a preamble to the proposed, and ill-fated, European constitution.

Since World War II Western Europe has welcomed large numbers of guest workers from the Southern and Eastern Europe and even Turkey. France absorbed both the French and Arab when it relinquished control over North African colonies. England's decolonization brought migrants first from the Caribbean and then from the Indian subcontinent and Asia.

In the last 30 years, however, increasing numbers of the migrants have come from Africa. Citizens that saw their countries as homogeneous ethically, culturally, religiously, even politically, woke up to mosques in Rome, black ghettos in Brixton, veiled women in Paris, and acts of terrorism. Soon to follow were extremist political groupings like Jean-Marie La Pen’s fascist Front National, skin-heads in England mixing football rowdy-ism with xenophobia, and Germany’s unemployed youth longing for the full employment under Nazism.

With time, restricting and ending guest-worker programs has become part of more moderate political parties' agenda. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France even went further proposing anti-foreign restrictions, such as banning the burka that some Islamic women wear in public. Silvio Berlescone's tenuous hold on power in Italy depends on the xenophobic Northern League.

The European Union takes seriously the burden created by accepting thousands of refugees from North African in this context. It’s already having problems evacuating its own national caught up in the Libyan fighting, much less assisting refugees and other guest workers. At a two-day conference representatives discussed the impending flood, but they split over its seriousness and its cost. Northern Europe seemed to want to wait on events.

But Italy already had to deal with thousand fleeing from Tunisia, and expects its Lampedusa Island off the Libyan coast to see a new wave of refugees and migrants. Italy and Greece are expected to take the brunt of the wave of migrants—not all of them refugees—and their politics and economies are already in turmoil. It will be hard to absorb them.

Many of the migrant workers from sub-Saharan Africa can’t get back home and may be tempted to sneak into Southern Europe. A wave of Tunisians that arrived in Lampedusa were unimpeded by authorities as they left. Agreements with North African autocratic governments Italy has crafted to stem the migration are unenforceable. With Libya in chaos, migration is expected to be harder to control.