Italian officers rescue a woman from a crowded wooden boat carrying more than seven hundred migrants, during a rescue operation in the Mediterranean sea, about 13 miles north of Sabratha, Libya, Monday, Aug. 29, 2016. Thousands of migrants and refugees were rescued Monday morning from more than 20 boats by members of Proactiva Open Arms NGO and Italian military officers. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Italian personnel rescue migrants from a boat carrying more than 700 people © AP

In rubber dinghies and ramshackle wooden boats, refugees and migrants have been risking their lives in the Mediterranean this week in one desperate expedition after another. These voyages mock the notion that the EU is in command of the emergency engulfing its southern borders. Since Saturday, the Italian coastguard and other rescuers have saved about 13,000 people trying to make their way from north Africa to Italy.

According to the International Organisation for Migration, more than 106,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Italy between January 1 and August 28. More than 2,700 others died in these months trying to cross the central Mediterranean. The sea known as the birthplace of European civilisation is in no danger of losing its dishonourable title as the world’s most deadly maritime area for refugees and migrants.

Except in Italy, these unpleasant truths are escaping many Europeans’ attention. For this, there are several explanations. The first relates to last year’s vast flows of irregular migrants from Turkey to Greece, and from Greece across the Balkans into the EU’s heartland. These flows all but dried up after the EU and Turkey struck a deal in March to bottle up the tide of humanity.

Yet the calm is an illusion. The EU’s arrangement with Turkey is fragile and may fall apart before long, especially if European governments backtrack on their never entirely sincere promise to grant visa-free travel to Turks. In any case, large numbers of irregular migrants are arriving once more in Greece, where some 57,000 people are already holed up in miserable camps.

In north Africa, refugee and migrant pressures have built up thanks to Libya’s collapse and the refusal of other littoral states to act as the EU’s patsy by managing its external borders on its behalf. The focus of the refugee emergency has moved from the Greek and Turkish sea lanes to the central Mediterranean with a speed that has far outpaced the EU’s creaky decision-making machinery. Action requires a consensus among all 28 governments, but to varying degrees each sees the crisis through national lenses, paralysing the collective approach that is, in the end, the only method likely to achieve lasting results.

A second factor inhibiting public awareness of the crisis is that a flurry of murderous terrorist attacks, starting in France and spreading to Belgium and Germany, has badly rattled Europeans over the past 10 months. Many now associate terrorist threats to European societies with the unsolved political, religious, humanitarian, economic and demographic problems of north Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and south Asia. In a Pew Research Center poll, conducted in 10 EU states and released in July, 58 per cent of respondents expressed the opinion that refugees would increase the risk of terrorism in their country.

A third explanation is the poisonous politics of Europe. Over the past 18 months, the majority of refugees and migrants arriving in the EU have come from Islamic countries, chiefly Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. In the feverish pre-election climate of EU states such as Austria, France and the Netherlands, some politicians seek votes by depicting Islam as a menace to national identity.

Not all are on the extreme right. Nicolas Sarkozy, the former French president, is fighting his re-election campaign on soil ploughed for years by Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front. Viktor Orban, Hungary’s conservative nationalist premier, expects a resounding victory next month in a referendum he has called to reject EU-set refugee resettlement quotas. Elsewhere in central Europe, mainstream political leaders in the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia regard western Europe’s attempts to integrate Muslims into the fabric of national life as a desecration of Christian civilisation.

Germany seemed immune to this kind of venom until Angela Merkel, the Christian Democrat chancellor, threw open its doors a year ago to 1m refugees. However, the rightwing populist, anti-Islamic Alternative for Germany is expected to perform strongly on September 4 in an election in the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. Ahead of this vote, Sigmar Gabriel, the Social Democratic party leader and deputy chancellor, opportunistically criticised Ms Merkel’s refugee policies, causing Peter Tauber, the CDU’s general secretary, to comment that Mr Gabriel’s “shamelessness knows no bounds”.

There are no simple answers to the refugee and migrant emergency. But if Europeans were to reject fear and intolerance, they might grasp that it is precisely their inability to develop a shared approach that is making the emergency so hard to control.

tony.barber@ft.com

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