Fortress Europe, anti-immigration propaganda and the future of the European migration and asylum system: an interview with MEP Pietro Bartolo

19 June 2023 /

10 min

The 3rd of October 2023 will mark the tenth anniversary of the tragic Lampedusa shipwreck that provoked the death of at least 368 people trying to get across the Central Mediterranean Sea. This event, prefiguring the major migration waves of 2015-2016, has impacted Europe, highlighting the perilous travel conditions migrants still face today at the European external borders, from the Mediterranean to the Balkans. In addition, it also revealed a paradoxical outcome resulting from the lack of action and mismanagement of migration by European member states and EU institutions. We have had the opportunity to engage in a meaningful conversation with Italian MEP Pietro Bartolo (S&D) regarding the current state of the European migration and asylum system, the effects of externalizing borders on the lives of migrants, and the criminalization of sea rescuers. For many years, Mr. Bartolo, an experienced gynecologist, has devoted himself to providing first aid to migrants on the island of Lampedusa and was also among the first rescuers in the Lampedusa shipwreck. His dedication eventually earned him a seat in the European Parliament in 2019 as a member of the Social Democrats.

On a related topic : Explaining the main drivers of anti-immigration attitudes in Europe

What do we mean by Fortress Europe and what has changed in European migration policies and towards NGOs in the ten years following the Lampedusa shipwreck in 2013?

Fortress Europe is either a question of building walls, a truly physical border, or of the agreements made with third countries, like Turkey and Libya. Europe is trying to close itself almost completely to the migratory phenomenon in recent times, creating real and proper walls, or there are even countries that ask for European funds for the construction of walls, like the one that was built in Poland on the border with Belarus, where I have been and seen unspeakable things. In the case of third countries, which are also countries of transit and not necessarily of origin, the tendency of Europe is to inject a lot of funds to block these people at the external borders.

It is the same for the bilateral agreement between Italy and Tunisia, which we know today is in very serious economic and political difficulties, due to the presence of an authoritarian president, who has created this very serious unease. I suspect that the perspective of this bilateral agreement has created a climate of hatred towards the blacks who come from Central, Sub-Saharan Africa. Therefore there has even been a hunt for black people. “Fortress Europe” now is also adding another country that has joined the Visegrad countries, Italy, as we know that this government will do everything possible to create ever greater difficulties. They say they want to fight traffickers by always setting limitations, instead the more you make it difficult to arrive, the more human traffickers gain and prosper. But it has always been like this in history, hence it is a commercial fact that they eventually treat it as a trade deal, but we should not forget that we are talking about human beings.

But asking for asylum is the refugee’s right. This is enshrined in the Geneva Convention but Europe denies it. At the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina or Italy and Slovenia, people get rejected and taken to the other side of the frontier, where the famous “game” begins. But at the Polish borders, they hit people with water hoses and they also built a wall, which is pushback. You can’t build a wall. A wall must be built if you are at war with another country. So nothing has changed over the past ten years.

On a related topic : The use of migrants as a geopolitical tool

What are the consequences of the externalization of European borders, such as agreements with third states and the delegation of border control to non-state actors?

I identify the Libyan coast guard with the human traffickers themselves because they are the ones who have a huge business from this, as they need either to wage war between the two Libyan factions and buy weapons for war. And then obviously its power of persuasion towards other countries, especially Italy, can even be considered an instrumentalization of migration. In fact, we make agreements with them not to let migrants arrive in exchange for money, but they arrive anyway, so we are spending useless money and the Libyan coast guard is cheating on Italy and stealing taxpayers’ money. Therefore, the memorandum Italy-Libya was put in place to block these people, even giving away patrol boats and offering training. Obviously, Frontex also played a role in this whole affair, signaling the presence of boats, dinghies, and small boats to the Libyan coast guard to bring the migrants back. And this cannot be done because Frontex should play a different role, which is enforcing human rights, while this is a question of pushback. Refoulements that are obviously illegal according to the international law principle of “non-refoulement” as enshrined in the Geneva Convention but also in other international agreements, such as the Charter of European Rights. These push backs are being done not only in the Mediterranean but also in the Spanish enclaves of Melilla and Ceuta, in Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina. Last but not least, at the border between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia there is the Lipa camp, which is really a lager where people are isolated from everyone in a condition of segregation, and police violence is systematically practiced against the people who are trying to get to Europe and exercise their right for asylum.

What are or could be the legal alternatives to travel by sea and along the Balkan route? Why does Europe seem to continue wanting to ignore the benefits brought about by migrations from a demographic, economic, social and cultural perspective?

We have to completely change the paradigm. These people have to go through regular channels, through humanitarian corridors and with documents. Only then we can actually say that we are fighting human traffickers. Even if they are exploited and humiliated, paradoxically the traffickers are the only ones who allow the migrants to reach Europe. Because we have created a fortress in Europe, by paying other countries to block them. If we stop giving this money to third countries, but we start using it to welcome migrants, then not only will we manage the migration problem, but we will also do what is best for Europe. As a matter of fact, migrants can help us from all points of view, demographic, economic, social and cultural. These are people who have their own culture, experiences and traditions that together with ours can help our society thrive and grow. 

In fact, we are the people in danger if we look at the issue from a demographic perspective. The negative European demographic trends show clearly that it is an old continent where there are no more young people and where there is no longer the possibility of creating new jobs. From an economic point of view, many jobs are lacking in the labor force. I think this is a paradox that European entrepreneurs are clamoring to have these people on a legal basis, while European governments are against immigration. For example in Italy, the government has understood that there is a supply-demand disparity in different sectors, from agriculture and animal husbandry to construction, so it has issued a flow decree to bring 80,000 workers to Italy and then, organized a “click-day” for all companies. Do you know how many clicks there were on the first day by companies? 240,000. There is a contradiction because if all of Europe lacks millions of people, we should work to bring them here legally while also saving funds. I think that we should face the migratory phenomenon under this perspective and through intelligence, rationality and humanity as the children, women and men fleeing from war, earthquakes, poverty, religious persecution, and even more, only try to survive and have no alternatives. 

Unfortunately, in order to reach a popular consensus, European politicians first created fear and hatred toward the migrants through a toxic narrative, where they are presented only as threats. It is not true that there is an invasion since we are talking about a few hundred thousand people, while having rightly welcomed 5 million people from Ukraine in one month, without anyone noticing. The problem I see here is called racism. We cannot define it otherwise. Because the people from Afghanistan and Syria are refugees too and they also have the right to conduct a normal life. There is no difference between those fleeing war and persecution and those who emerge from their own hunger and economic difficulties. 

On a related topic : Born in the wrong place

What developments do you expect from the Meloni government in the field of migration management and sea rescue?

Meloni wants the naval blockade, but the naval blockade is a military term and is pursued when a country is at war with another country. They talk about protecting borders. Borders must be controlled, they are protected in a  war context, but we are not at war with anyone. And we have no right to block these people. Who are we to say they should not come this way? We have to give them and us the opportunity to understand what their biggest dream is.

Another story of the Italian government, in particular, has raged against NGOs because they think that they represent a pull factor or even have agreements with smugglers and human traffickers. But the smugglers cannot be identified with the traffickers because often the smugglers are also, unfortunately, the same migrants who, in order to cross, make themselves available to guide these boats even without having the experience to do so, leading to tragedies. Lately, from Tunisia, someone has thought of making sheet metal boats that have no stability because they are made by people who do not know what navigating the sea really means. When people arrive on these overloaded boats I think it is simply a miracle. There are two ways in which the Meloni government makes it difficult for NGOs to operate. First, by giving them the furthest available harbor so that they are as far away as possible from the places where shipwrecks happen. Second, by preventing these boats, when given the port of call, from not being able to stop to make other rescues. Consequently, all these are actions that try to distance NGOs as much as possible and avoid their presence. But the presence of NGOs has always been fundamental in saving lives, especially today, since the methods of transfer have become more dangerous than before, when the smugglers used well-built wooden or iron boats in order to go back, without abandoning these small boats in the middle of the sea. 

On a related topic : Migrant work and ‘agricultural slavery’ in Italy

What is the state of play of the New EU Pact on Migration and Asylum? 

I hope the situation will change as a result of the compromise for the New Pact on Migration that we voted on in the LIBE Commission, where I was shadow rapporteur for the Social Democrats, on March 29. Not the ideal one, the one I wanted, but we have reached an acceptable compromise which will be now confronted with the decisions of the Council. It is certainly much better than the current instrument, the Dublin Regulation, but we must now deal with the decisions of the Council, which thinks a little differently from the Parliament. This increases the risk of failure or an even bigger compromise, but we should not go down too much, otherwise, we have done nothing. Lately, we have had quite another acceleration because in addition to approving the RAMM dossier, the one that must replace Dublin which I believe was the most important, other dossiers on crisis and procedures have also been approved. I must say the obstacle of Parliament has been overcome with a fairly large majority, hence it could bypass the plenary and go straight to the Council. There will be an advancement because the roadmap that has been envisaged by the Council as well as by the Commission is to complete the whole picture by the end of the legislature. If we succeed, we have taken an important step forward, but if we don’t, unfortunately, we would have to start all over again.

[This article was first published in the issue 38 of the magazine]

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