A U.N. Migration Pact Is Dividing Europe — And Has Become Fodder For Nationalists

Dec 10, 2018
Originally published on December 10, 2018 10:44 am

The men and women from eight African countries packed into a rubber raft late last month and set off from the Libyan city of Sabratha in the hope of crossing the Mediterranean to reach Italy.

But powerful sea winds blew them off course. They drifted at sea for 10 days before their boat ended up back in Libyan waters and capsized off the coast of Misrata.

At least 12 died. Libyan authorities managed to rescue 10.

Othman Belbeisi, the International Organization for Migration's Libya chief, lamented the news on Twitter. "This is not acceptable," he added in a statement. "Saving lives at sea should be the No. 1 priority."

This year, 3,381 migrants have died around the globe, according to the IOM. Since 2015, that number is 22,459.

How to save migrants' lives, while also addressing calls for border controls, has drawn world leaders to Marrakesh, Morocco, this week to discuss the United Nations' Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.

The 34-page document, set to be approved Monday and Tuesday, offers guidelines on how to make migration more orderly and humane. It suggests cross-national cooperation, treating migrants with dignity, eliminating discrimination and even holding culinary festivals "to facilitate appreciation for migrant cultures." None of it is binding.

The Trump administration refused a year ago to endorse the pact. A State Department official told NPR that it was "inconsistent with U.S. law and policy."

The pact has split the European Union, where migration remains a politically toxic issue, even as the number of migrants arriving to the EU has dropped by 90 percent since 2015. At least seven countries — led by Hungarian President Viktor Orban, the leader of the EU's anti-immigrant nationalists — have refused to sign onto the pact.

EU Migration Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos has urged those countries to reconsider. "It is in the interest of Europe and all countries directly or indirectly involved in migration," he told reporters in Brussels.

The pact has brought the Belgium's government to the brink of collapse and forced Dutch leaders to publicly explain their support. Though Denmark has not withdrawn from the pact, its immigration minister Inger Støjberg is skipping the summit. She recently announced plans to ship migrants rejected for asylum to an uninhabited island in the Baltic Sea, where contagious diseases are studied.

The pact, while a lightning rod, is not the central issue, says Gerald Knaus, an Austrian migration policy specialist who leads the European Stability Initiative, a think tank in Berlin.

"The U.N. pact will really not change much in Europe for good or bad," he says. "What it has revealed is the success of the far right in Europe to take almost any document, and spin it to create the myth of a conspiracy of global elites who want to have a mass invasion of Europe."

Last week, Marcel de Graaff, a far-right politician who believes migrants are invading Europe, claimed falsely that the U.N. migration pact would make criticism of migration a "criminal offense." De Graaff is a Dutch member of the European Parliament from the Party for Freedom, which cooperates with Geert Wilders, the Netherlands' best-known nationalist, who has called migrants "scum."

The U.N. pact is "declaring migration as a human right," de Graaff told reporters. "So it will be impossible to criticize 'welcome migrants' politics without being at risk to be jailed for hate speech."

Knaus calls that statement "completely delusional."

"This is a non-binding pact!" he exclaims. "It's a campaign of lies, and the people who do it know it. But the fact that they are effective shows us that the mythology of a great conspiracy, which is spread in social media by far-right organizations very effectively, is becoming increasingly important in European politics."

Consider Italy, where the leader of the anti-immigrant League party, Matteo Salvini, is now deputy prime minister and interior minister. He has vilified private humanitarian vessels that have rescued migrants at sea, calling them a "taxi service" and accusing them of working with smugglers in Libya. He refused to let them dock in Italian ports. Most gave up.

The last charity ship operating in the central Mediterranean announced on Friday that it would cease operations.

Salvini won parliamentary support late last month for a decree that abolishes humanitarian protection for migrants ineligible for refugee status who cannot be sent home. The decree could expel hundreds from migrant centers, leaving them homeless and "at risk of being exploited by criminal networks," says Matteo Villa, a migration specialist at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies. "And yet, an unintended consequence is that these migrants — tens of thousands of them — will be stuck in Italy."

Migration has become such a fraught issue that "it's hard to make any rational arguments for it anymore," Villa says. "There is a detachment from reality."

Villa points to a recent survey by Ipsos Italia, in which 60 percent of Italians said they believe that the number of undocumented migrants in Italy had increased since last year.

"In reality," Villa says, "it dropped by more than 80 percent."

The number of undocumented migrants in the EU fell after 2015, when centrist politicians led a crackdown. Yet they received little credit for the drop and the far right is still gaining.

Centrists also face criticism from far-left activists who want open borders, says Anne Hammerstad, a migration specialist at Agulhas, an international research consultancy based in the U.K.

"Those centrists need to come onstage and not be afraid to discuss the positive aspects of migration as well as the challenges, because there are challenges," she says.

That didn't work for the EU's most powerful centrist, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She became the target of European nationalists — and President Trump — after Germany welcomed hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers in 2015.

"We can do it," she told Germans, referring to integration of those refugees, most of whom came from Syria. But the far-right Alternative for Germany exploited the issue and is now the biggest opposition party in Germany's parliament.

Knaus, the Austrian policy analyst, helped the EU draft a 2016 deal with Turkey that drastically cut irregular migration by sea to Greece. Human rights groups assailed the agreement, which, Knaus points out, "is based on existing human rights law."

"This was extremely strategically blind," he says.

He predicts this U.N. pact won't be the only target for Europe's nationalists.

"They will attack all international human rights treaties," he warns. "This is not about what it is written in the pact or what it will actually do. It is about feeding a narrative, which is based on lies, on distortions, but which has been astonishingly effective."

Europe's centrist leaders "need to wake up," he says. "And the human rights groups need to wake up. What is at stake here isn't this or that policy."

What is at stake, he says, is much more.

NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen contributed to this story.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


World leaders meet in Morocco this week and vote on a United Nations' global migration compact. It is supposed to make migration more orderly and more humane. Joanna Kakissis reports that many Europeans are not enthused.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: To get a sense of how sympathy for asylum-seekers has waned in Europe, consider the fate of a charity-run rescue ship called the Aquarius.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Yelling in foreign language).

KAKISSIS: In the last two years, volunteers on the Aquarius rescued nearly 50,000 migrants trying to cross miles of sea between North Africa and Italy on very flimsy rafts.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Life jackets for everybody. Let's go.

KAKISSIS: But on Friday, after months of pressure from Italy's anti-immigrant government, the Aquarius was forced to stop its work. Amnesty International's Kumi Naidoo slammed the EU in a video message.


KUMI NAIDOO: European leaders have shown where their true priorities lie. The closure of the Central Mediterranean route for refugees and migrants, even at the cost of the soaring death toll at sea...

KAKISSIS: Activists want to shame anti-immigrant nationalists in Europe.

GERALD KNAUS: Some leaders you can't shame because they openly want to change what is considered shameful.

KAKISSIS: Gerald Knaus is an analyst in Berlin who helps EU leaders draft migration policy.

KNAUS: If you believe in human rights, in refugee rights, in humane policies, you need to actually present proposals that can be supported by majorities.

KAKISSIS: He says most Europeans want border control but with respect for human life. That's what the U.N. global migration pact aims to do. Refugee politics specialist Anne Hammerstad calls it a guide for nations to work together.

ANNE HAMMERSTAD: It does involve wording such as the human rights of migrants and making their journey more safe, et cetera.

KAKISSIS: Europe's nationalists claim this wording proves there's a global conspiracy to flood the continent with undocumented migrants.


MARCEL DE GRAAFF: The compact for migration is legalisation of mass migration. It's declaring migration as a human right.

KAKISSIS: That's Marcel de Graaff, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, speaking to reporters last week.


DE GRAAFF: So, in fact, it will become impossible to criticise without being at risk to be jailed for hate speech. Criticism of migration will become a criminal offence.

KAKISSIS: Knaus calls statements like these...

KNAUS: Completely delusional, but the mythology of a great conspiracy, which is spread in social media by far-right organizations very effectively, is becoming increasingly an important effect in European politics.

KAKISSIS: False claims about the U.N. pact have fueled the opposition, and at least seven EU countries have refused to sign the document. It's also left to Belgium's government hanging by a thread. Matteo Villa, a migration specialist in Italy, sees a debate disconnected from reality.

MATTEO VILLA: Migration is toxic right now in Europe. Here's why. Politicians have been very effective at portraying any number of migrants arriving by sea as an invasion.

KAKISSIS: And he expects that to keep happening even though the number of asylum-seekers arriving in the EU is at its lowest level in five years. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis.

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