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Migrants become pawns in endless political game

By JULIAN SHEA in London | China Daily | Updated: 2023-12-26 09:06
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A boat carrying 156 migrants arrives at a seaport in El Hierro, Spain, on Dec 15 following their rescue by a Spanish vessel. STRINGER/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Perilous journeys to Europe exacerbate divides, putting at risk continent's unity

From the collapse of empires in the aftermath of World War I to the fallout following the breakup of Yugoslavia, mass migration was a regular feature of life in 20th century Europe.

In the 21st century, migration remains widespread, but now it is mainly events and people from outside Europe that drive it.

From nearly 100 people dying after a boat sank off the southern coast of Italy in February to the electoral success of the far-right in the Netherlands in November, this year the human cost and political impact of immigration have been inescapable, and there is little sign of that relenting in 2024.

The current migration challenge is from without, not within. Years of instability in countries such as Afghanistan, Syria and Libya have caused tens of thousands of people to leave, now joined by others from sub-Saharan Africa.

An extensive trafficking network results in many of them being willing to risk their lives to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, as part of a huge ecosystem of human suffering whose complexity is airbrushed out by simplistic headlines.

In her award-winning book My Fourth Time, We Drowned: Seeking Refuge on the World's Deadliest Migration Route, journalist Sally Hayden immersed herself in the migrants' world.

Organized crime, trafficking, abuse and institutional corruption all contribute to a grim picture of which small boats full of individuals are just a minor detail, but Hayden also highlights the significance of the mobile phone as an instigator and a chronicler of the migration crisis.

"Smartphones had … enabled Africans to see what life is like in Western countries," she wrote. With online access, "it is easy to compare lives".

Although much of Europe is increasingly in union on many political matters, when it comes to migration, national attitudes vary wildly.

"Over the last 15 years, there have been arrivals across the Mediterranean at quite a steady level — the peak was in 2015-16, after the trouble started in Syria, when it was around 1.2 million people, but since then it's gone back down," said Andrew Geddes, director of the Migration Policy Centre at the Robert Schuman Centre in Florence, Italy.

With its position of geographical prominence, projecting toward North Africa, Italy is one of the top destinations for people trying to enter Europe via the Mediterranean.

By November, about 150,000 sea migrants had arrived in Italy alone so far this year, a figure about 50 percent higher than in the corresponding period a year earlier, Reuters reported.

"It's fueled by conflict and inequality," Geddes said. "This year, there were predictions of 200,000 people — that hasn't happened, but the numbers are still up on last year."

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