EU immigration policy comes under scrutiny

Despite the searing heat and the absence of a viable alternative, it was reported this week that some former occupants of the burnt-out Moria refugee camp on Lesbos were refusing to move to temporary tented accommodation elsewhere on the island. They fear that if they do so, they will just be forgotten about all over again.

Who can blame them? For years the rest of Europe has known of the squalor, overcrowding and desperation at Moria and other detention camps on the Greek islands. The European Union has thrown some money in the direction of Athens and, to a shameful extent, left the Greek government to get on with it. At the end of last year, Greece was hosting around 200,000 migrants, the vast majority of whom had crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey. Yet during the past five years, a mere 15,000 arrivals have been relocated to other EU countries.

As the numbers have grown, the initial generosity of spirit shown by islanders has evaporated. Mainland politicians have become justifiably embittered by the disproportionate burden that Greece, along with Italy and Malta, is being asked to carry. Resentment has bred cynicism. It was clearly hoped, though never publicly stated, that the appalling living conditions endured by migrants, and the interminable wait for their applications to be processed, might discourage others from making the same journey. As arrivals continued this summer, Greece’s conservative government was accused by human rights organisations of illegally and secretly expelling more than 1,000 asylum seekers. A Guardian investigation found similar tactics being used off the Maltese coast.

The Moria blaze, and the migrant protests that followed it, must mark the end of this scandalous escalation of hostilities against the vulnerable, and the rest of Europe must recognise its complicity in it. Britain, predictably and shamefully, has sat on its hands since the fire and done nothing. Angela Merkel on Tuesday pledged that Germany would take 1,500 migrants from the Lesbos camp. But more important in the long term is the commitment by Mrs Merkel and the European commission to take a direct role in building and running a dignified reception site for migrants on the island.

Most crucially, other member states must be persuaded to take seriously article 80 of the EU treaty, which demands a “fair sharing of responsibility” on migration issues. Next week, the European commission will unveil its long-delayed plan to establish a common asylum and migration policy. Once again, countries will be asked to accept a more equitable distribution of migrants across the union. The European commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson, has expressed hope that the spirit of the coronavirus recovery fund, which pooled EU debt to help hard-hit nations, can be replicated. But given the implacable opposition of eastern European countries such as Hungary and Poland to a quota system of any kind, it is hard to see how a scheme could work without a mandatory component.

Since the peak of 2015, the number of irregular migrants seeking to enter the EU has plummeted. Ms Johansson put it well when she said that Europe does not have a migration crisis right now, but “some migrants are in crisis”. It is past time for something to be done about their predicament.

-The Guardian