The fortress is closing
August 06, 2004 | More from Don Murray
August yawns; the beaches beckon. In Europe, a continent surrounded by several seas, it is the Mediterranean that draws the crowds. Like eager sardines, they lie to fry, packed together on the sand. The luckier (read richer) among them cruise the waters off those beaches in vessels of varying luxury.
Others who came seeking the beaches of Southern Europe this summer were not so lucky. True, they cruised but their tour of the Mediterannean was by necessity, not by choice. Their boat was called the Cap Anamur. On board were 37 Africans, rescued from a rubber dinghy in the sea. The ship belongs to a German aid agency of the same name. Its self-appointed task is to try to save refugees adrift in ocean waters and to bring them to haven in Europe.
Yet there was no haven for them in Europe this summer. For three weeks the Cap Anamur sailed, looking for a port that would let it dock. Its captain announced that the Africans had said they were refugees from Sudan, escaping the ethnic terror in Darfur. The boat sailed into Maltese waters. Malta is the smallest of the 10 new members of the European Union. It categorically refused to let the boat land. It sailed on to Southern Italy. The Italians reacted angrily. The boat was German; the German government should take responsiblity for its human cargo.
When that didn't work, the Italian authorities said it should return to Malta, or perhaps to Libya. The pressure mounted: the UN, the Vatican and priests on board the ship urged Italy to take them. Finally, angrily, the authorities relented. The Cap Anamur docked. The 37 Africans were taken to an immigration centre that resembled a prison camp. The ship's captain and crew were arrested.
"This is a devastating precedent because it shows Italy to be the soft underbelly of Europe," said the Italian justice minister, Roberto Castelli. "The message going out to the world is that the country has no way of controlling its own borders, and anyone who wants to can enter."
With those sour words from the minister, Italy received its newest refugees. But not for long. It was quickly established that the Africans were not from Sudan, but from Ghana and Nigeria. They had undertaken an arduous journey and risked their lives to get to Europe, true. But they were economic migrants and they knew it. And so they offered a story that would get them asylum status. Their story was punctured and within a week 32 of them were on planes back to their countries of origin. The five others were allowed to stay on humanitarian grounds.
Italy's truculent welcome to the Africans is symptomatic of a new and general European sourness towards refugees. Almost all the countries of the European Union have taken steps in recent months to make it much harder for asylum-seekers to stay.
Even the most welcoming of these countries Britain is trumpeting its new, tough policy towards these people. In 2002 it received over 100,000 asylum applications, more than any other country, according to figures from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Canada received just over 33,000.
Two years later, with the tough new immigration measures in place, the number of asylum seekers in Britain has been halved. And the monthly total of applications is still dropping. Britain's policy mirrors earlier efforts to turn away refugees by European countries that traditionally welcomed them, like Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
As for Italy, the whining of its minister about being the soft underbelly of Europe is wholly misleading. The country currently hosts just 9,169 refugees. Last year it rejected 80 per cent of all asylum applications.
Europe's leaders still don't think those measures are enough. This spring they looked at implementing a European Union directive that would make it even tougher for refugees from Africa, Asia and the Middle East to get in. This summer the German interior minister, Otto Schily, proposed a further wrinkle. He floated a proposal to set up camps in North Africa to house Europe's asylum-seekers while their applications are being processed.
The German press has reacted by calling the idea half-baked and inhuman. But his spokesperson says Schily still stands by the proposal. It's not clear whether the governments of North Africa have been asked for their opinion.
What drives all this is fear. Europe's voters are now convinced their continent is being swamped by unwanted refugees. "Asylum UK!" one tabloid newspaper headline shrieked when the 2002 OECD figures were published early this year. The British government responded with a tough new package of immigration restraints.
The fear of refugees is twinned with the fear that Europe is "full" it can't hold any more people. A Dutch party set up by a charismatic populist politician, Pim Fortuyn, ran on this plank, and only on this plank, in national elections two years ago. It won 20 per cent of the vote.
In Britain, a recent poll found that 50 per cent of respondents thought all immigration should be banned or limited to a symbolic number under 10,000 a year. The irony is that this fear is growing just as government economists across Europe are warning of an imminent population shrinkage, due to the aging of the population. New, young immigrants willing to do the dirty work are desperately needed, they whisper in the corridors of power. But how to convince the voters?
The history of the Cap Anamur tells a story of how attitudes to refugees and immigration have changed drastically in a generation. Cap Anamur was set up by German activists in 1979 to help the Vietnamese "boat people" refugees fleeing the Communist regime that had recently beaten the United States and swallowed up the non-communist south of the country.
Many of the boat people were dying in small craft as they fled in the South China Sea. The first Cap Anamur vessel rescued at least 10,000 refugees and brought them to what was then West Germany. When it sailed into Hamburg with its first cargo of boat people, it was greeted with flowers, bands and official speeches.
This summer the group's leader, the ship captain and its second-in-command were thrown into jail by the Italians and threatened with criminal proceedings. They were released a few days later. But the German government said it was still considering laying charges for encouraging "illegal immigration."
The fortress of the rich is closing its doors.
Yet the refugees still try to come. According to European figures, 5,000 have died in the attempt in recent years, drowning in the Mediterranean, their bodies washing up on southern Europe's beaches days or weeks later.
Unlike most living refugees, the dead who touch Europe's beaches are allowed to stay in unmarked graves.