Lampedusa refugees: a test for European solidarity

In a New York Times article published back in 2004, Graham Watson, British Member of the European Parliament, considered the situation of refugees arriving in Lampedusa a real humanist challenge for the EU, arguing that human rights, deemed inherent to the fundamental values of Europe, should not be considered any different for those beyond our borders. With the recent waves of North African refugees reaching the southern shores of the EU to flee instability across the Mediterranean, a real challenge lies before us today. However, is Europe prepared to face the political and financial sacrifices of a comprehensive asylum and refugee policy and show sufficient solidarity to preserve the high ground upon which the culture of human rights in Europe has been built?

The immediate reaction of Member States in dealing with this sudden flow of refugees leaves me extremely concerned. For instance, EU Member State have held diverging views over the delivery of temporary residence permits to Tunisian refugees, which Italy has been carrying out over the past days to relieve pressure on its southern ports. Moreover, recent reports that hundreds of Tunisian immigrants have been pushed back by French police forces to the small Italian town of Ventimiglia a few kilometers short of the French border has stained diplomatic relations between France and Italy. Although growing electoral pressures and political popularity in shambles have pushed Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi down particularly conservative routes, these national divergences highlight the national divergences within the EU (and the Schengen area itself) and prove that EU is still a long way away from achieving a comprehensive EU approach to asylum and refugees.

Although the Lisbon Treaty has paved the way for the adoption of EU asylum and immigration law by the European Council and the European Parliament allowing for certain elements of the 1999 Tampere programme to be initiated, much still needs to be done to achieve the level of solidarity amongst European Member States necessary to match the aspirations of Europe’s human rights culture. Back in 1999, Member States present in Tampere pushed for the implementation of common European standards with regards asylum and refugees issues. A decade on, national policies on asylum and refugees remain far too inconsistent and driven by strategic national priorities.

The sudden flows of refugees from North Africa following the dramatic events of the past weeks have allowed highlighting yet more Europe’s shortcomings as an international actor. It is time for Europe to start walking its walk and focus on responding efficiently to these humanitarian needs if it is to revive its damaged international credibility and, most importantly, to prove its full solidarity with those fighting for democracy.


Andrew Bower