Photo Credit: US Coast Guard
Migrants on a boat

(Originally posted to the JCPA website}


While 700,000 refugees wait in chaos on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in the hope of reaching Europe, confusion reigns on the other side. There is a profound lack of means, ideas, and laws to safely distribute these desperate migrants among the 28 member states of the European Union. Furthermore, among the authorities, there is a clear inability to distinguish between refugees, economic migrants, and even criminals. Which of these migrants are in search of employment, and which of them are fanatics seeking to fight against the Western infidels?


When these immigrants are accepted, many countries do not possess the ability to integrate them within their own societies. Often, immigrants end up confined in camps and ghettos. Many of them face severe problems created by their own cultures, which are frequently so very different from Western cultures and may even be antagonistic to European principles. For example, in Italy, around 70,000 immigrants arrived in 2015, but in 2017 this total was reduced to a bit more than 23,000.1 However, even though the numbers have shrunk, the general sense of alarm surrounding the immigrant issue has not lessened. The psychological impact has not followed the numbers. In fact, the opposite is the case. The issue of absorbing immigrants into Europe has continued growing, creating new politics and societies, and affecting the continent’s entire future. The issue of real refugees vs. economic migrants still raises overwhelming questions, and the problems are still immense. For this reason, it is worthwhile examining this issue, along with the concerns of the Western world.

The psychological pressure on Europe that has caused a secessionist trend among several nation-states of the European Union has overwhelmed the fact that the number of people illegally crossing into Europe actually dropped last year to its lowest level in five years, while there has been a spike in the number reaching Spain. An estimated 150,000 people entered the European Union through irregular crossings in 2018, according to Frontex, the border and coast guard agency. That is the lowest total since 2013, and it is 92 percent below the peak of 2015.

After 2018, Italy’s new government and its attitude toward immigration is the basic reason for the dramatic fall of the previous government, which failed to solve the issue. The migrants taking the central Mediterranean route from Libya, Algeria, and Tunisia to Italy may be a little more than 23,000, representing an 80 percent drop from last year. How this reduction was achieved requires a great deal of discussion and raises the question of how the flow of immigrants can be slowed or halted — and if it should be stopped. After all, the human tendency is to help a person in need or distress, in danger, hungry, or seeking protection for his/her children.

Europe’s Global Crisis

The growing disagreements within the European Union over opening or closing borders, the imposition of quotas and systems of admission, and other issues are leading to serious discord among the member states. These issues have become the main cause of a growing crisis among EU countries due to a deterioration of the economic situation, with deep divisions growing between Western and Eastern European states.

Most noticeably, it has deepened a schism between Germany and the rest of the old continent. This gulf was already there due to the preeminence of the constantly growing German economy, in comparison to the rest of Europe, which is in crisis. This has refueled the ancient conflict and divisions that led to the original establishment of the European Union.

It is not surprising that harsh accusations have been made against German Chancellor Angela Merkel for the way she managed the dominance of her country’s economy and her attitude toward immigration. Most of this criticism has come from countries that are burdened by a heavy public debt while immigrants continue to flock in, such as Greece. These accusations have formed a strong rebuttal of the position of Germany’s present leadership, as Merkel has decided upon an open-door policy (as discussed further on). This crisis has arisen at a time where there are many signs of the unsustainability of the European Union as a unitary institution or a seed for a future “United States of Europe.”

This situation predated 1992, when the Treaty of Maastricht was signed after many hesitations that reflected internal cracks in the façade of a united Europe.

When the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1951, creating the original European Coal and Steel Community, which eventually metamorphosed into the European Union of today, the main problem of its signatories was resisting Soviet pressure, and the original project merely sought to build a common market for coal and steel.

However, the founding document of European ideology, or the pan-European gospel, first emerged in 1941 as a counterweight to the Europe of Nazi-Fascist nationalists. This was the famous Ventotene Manifesto, written by the socialist Eugenio Colorni, the radical liberal Ernesto Rossi, and the former Communist Altiero Spinelli during their confinement under the Italian Fascist regime. If one carefully reads its pages, which many quote without being sufficiently familiar with them, you will find the national state is described as a war-mongering monster, destined to produce a Nazi plutocratic degeneration that exudes the rotten stink of “homeland and soil” and even race.

The imagined European federal state is, in the perspective of the manifesto’s authors, a world that “reforms society” “against inequalities and privileges.” Even democracy is seen as a dead weight against the backdrop of the socialist hope pervading the text. These are the roots of a united Europe from its very inception. The two world wars, having covered half a century with the gigantic layer of the blood of 100 million victims who perished between 1914 and 1945, only reinforced this ideology of giving people “peace and prosperity,” abolishing borders, and enhancing commonalities.

In the same vein, the European Union lacks a normal constitution. (After two referenda in France and the Netherlands on whether to create an EU constitution, the “no” votes won out in 2005.) Instead, the European Union’s constitutional basis is built upon substantive case laws and a somewhat vast, comic network of rules, all of which culminated in the Treaty of Lisbon, which was signed in 2007. The European Union is essentially an enormous, illegible corpus that takes care of everything, even the slightest trifle, from lamps to dairy products, with the aim of producing “good world government.” To follow this through, there are 750 elected members of the European Parliament, as well as 42,500 civil servants who move from hall to hall, from office to office, inside the labyrinths of the EU building. For this, the already depleted taxpayer pays €9 billion per year in administration costs, and salaries ranging from €1,600 to €16,000 euros (equal to $1,800 to $18,200) per month. The monetary union of 1990 and the creation of the Schengen Area in 1995, which abolished internal borders within Europe, were built upon this basis. This led to a long period of grace, in which there has been a growing EU economy, long-lasting peace, and prosperity.

For a long time, Germany managed the leadership of the European Union with authority and wisdom amid grumbling and antipathies from other member states, until European hysteria subverted Greece and brought on “Brexit” – the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. Until 2008, a favorable and peaceful objective situation prevailed in Europe. It is no small achievement for countries that were always at war and hated each other over the centuries to participate in this kind of federation. Consider the animus of France versus England, France and England both against Germany, everyone despising Italy, nobody even taking Spain into consideration, the Netherlands as an ornament, Northern European countries seen as a curiosity, and so forth. At the same time, the terrible conflicts that developed in Serbia – which Russia eventually managed – never received a single response from the European Union.

The Arab Spring

A crisis emerged in Europe, reaching its peak in 2008 when the Arab Spring unexpectedly turned into a source of severe concern as an uninterrupted flow of displaced migrants surged into the continent. The year 2008 was the year of the American credit crunch, when the large U.S. investment bank Lehman Brothers collapsed. It was the biggest financial crisis the world had ever seen since the Great Depression of the 1930s.

On August 8, 2008, another critical event occurred when Russia invaded Georgia. Following this, in 2014, a revolution occurred in Ukraine against the backdrop of that country’s association agreement with the European Union, where Russia also got involved and eventually attempted to annex the Crimea and Sevastopol. All of this clearly showed that, after the Balkan war, the conflicts in Europe were far from over.

Amid this global chaos, Europe witnessed another split when Germany attempted to remind its European partners to abide by their economic promises, while the other European countries contested German supremacy. All EU members (including the dramatic example of Greece) had to submit to a request to comply with the ideas of austerity, tax payments, and focusing on their public debt.

At first, the problem of the borders was not raised. Every EU country had its own problems, and each one blamed the others. Germany blamed everybody else, and everybody else blamed Chancellor Merkel. But the problem became more blatant when refugees began to flood the Mediterranean shores, as well as the headlines in an impoverished Europe, where unemployment is rampant, and the future of its youth is uncertain. The impoverished middle classes of Europe suddenly became a new actor that changed the continent’s narrative.

Universalism was the original idea behind post-nationalism, the main ideology of the European Union. It was inspired by the dismissal of the nationalism that had dominated Europe for over a century and brought cataclysmic world wars. The aspiration was to diminish ethnic, religious, and geographic borders, and replace them with vast, transnational alternatives. But the post-national-fraternal Europe, whose leader is Angela Merkel, who served as a minister at the age of 37 in reunited Germany’s first government, was pushed toward a deep crisis just by the questioning of the borders issue in relation to immigration. Many European countries have witnessed the rise of irate political forces around the simple refusal to accept growing rates of immigration.

To cite The New York Times, “Merkel has staked her legacy on upholding the European Union. A core tenet of the bloc is to maintain open borders among member states.”2 These issues are deeply interconnected, and it is no coincidence that the European anti-immigration parties are also the most Euro-skeptic. Merkel’s project has crashed twice, tragically: externally due to her incapacity to reaffirm EU values in the face of the “illiberal democratic” wind blowing from the East, and internally, where her naïve optimism has backfired, raising popular support for the extreme Right and even threatening her 13-year-long reign.

Merkel’s near-fall is nothing less than an example of the crisis of the European dream as a whole.

Root Causes of the Migration Crisis

It is still quite surprising how hard it has been for Europe to understand the fundamental importance of its problem. It is a mistake to see immigration as a sudden invasion that picked up in 2015 but became much smaller in 2016. In fact, immigration is a constant characteristic of the European Union and is a part of its very raison d’être. The Dublin Convention that unsuccessfully tried to organize the distribution of immigrants between 1997 and 1998 was the direct result of internal and external events. After the Maastricht Agreement and the adoption of the euro as the common currency, the immigration that followed was directly connected to the European conviction that opening borders, or, better, destroying them, was a very positive idea. A turning point was in 2014, when the European Union, which at the time had 15 members from Western Europe, welcomed Cyprus and Malta and, most importantly, eight new countries from the former Soviet bloc – the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Bulgaria and Romania had already joined in 2007.

Compared to the past, the economic disparity between the original bloc and the new states raised fears of an uncontrolled flow of low-level workers moving from East to West to undertake “welfare tourism.” This reached the extent that in France, a fictional character, the “Polish Plumber,” became a popular symbol of this phenomenon.3 In effect, after a pilot period of restraint for the new countries’ citizens, internal mobility within Europe consistently rose. Today, Romania and Poland are currently the two countries exporting the largest national groups in the European Union, with respectively 2 and 1.5 million EU migrants.4 Meanwhile, tumultuous events outside the continent pushed third-country nationals, mostly Muslim from Africa and the Middle East, to move away from their birthplaces in the hope of reaching Europe.

The causes of immigration through the Mediterranean Sea and over the Turkish borders have been increasing over the past 10 years. They include the Arab Spring, with the consequential horrific Syrian civil war, the chaotic Iraqi situation, the frightening presence of the Islamic State, the wave of African wars that has its epicenter in Libya, revolts against old dictators, and violent militias such as Boko Haram in Nigeria. All of these tragic and momentous events have been pushing men, women, and children toward the Mediterranean shores. At the same time, Shiite Iran and its ally Hizbullah have taken advantage of the chaos, terrorizing the population of the Middle East. Extrajudicial killings, tortures, and abduction by the Shiite militias in Iraq against the Sunnis, including young boys, have been widely documented.5 After the massacre of the Yarmouk camp undertaken by Assad, with the complicit silence of Hizbullah in 2015, even the Palestinians have started to turn against their old champion.6

As a consequence, a flourishing criminal trade of human beings is pushing masses of people toward rickety boats that can easily be sunk by the waves or the negligence and murderous behavior of the smugglers, whose interest is to move the largest mass they can, notwithstanding the danger. For this reason, almost 17,000 people have found their deaths in the sea between 2014 and 2018.7 According to ISPI data, one out of every 10 people who departed from the shores of Libya either died or went missing in the first months of 2018.8 In general, only half of the people who leave Libya make it to their intended destination. They are brought back, or incarcerated, and in recent years they have been cruelly kept on the Libyan side of the Mediterranean Sea by the same smugglers who used to sail them on their shaky crafts. On the other hand, ships belonging to NGOs sail into the waters to save the drowning people, with the effect of encouraging them to undertake the journey, but sometimes the real aim of these efforts is to increase the NGO’s own importance or to get public finance.

The European countries have displayed differing reactions, but the attempt to stem the tide of immigration is evident notwithstanding any rhetoric. Even before the mass arrival of immigrants in 2015, Amnesty International estimates that between 2007 and 2013 the European Union spent almost €2 billion on fences, surveillance systems, and patrols on land and sea. Immediately, this raises the question of who has the right to cross borders in search of asylum under international law. At the same time, there is a parallel problem of saving lives that are in danger; the Europeans could see plenty of people dying every day in the Mediterranean Sea. Of course, lives must be saved, but what should happen next? Almost three million people claimed asylum in the European Union in 2015 and 2016. Their arrival was chaotic, with many drowning in the sea. Others bypassed the laws governing the acceptance of refugees, and they spread out over Europe, disappearing further afield, never properly identifying themselves.

According to the Dublin Convention of 1997 and 1998, which was replaced in 2003 by the EU Dublin II Regulation, a request for protection must be handled by the country of first entrance, which also must assist the claimant throughout the process. Only some European countries have had to deal with this heavy burden, causing their own populations to become more and more panicked and confused, and psychological and technical obstacles arose everywhere.

The Dublin mechanism put the heaviest burden on frontier states, such as Italy, Greece, Spain, Malta, and Cyprus. The scenes of desperation and confusion of the ships arriving, after saving the migrants, at Lampedusa Island off the southern coast of Italy, for instance, became daily news. The number of people killed by stormy waves became a regular tally on news broadcasts. The sense of guilt was overbearing when a photo appeared of a small child lying dead on a beach, and the pain rocked the European Union whose main aim and hope was to overcome their historical colonial past and old racial and ethnocentric feelings.

Germany and the European Divide

Germany provides the best example of the desperate will to present a different attitude toward the problem of mass migration from a different and often antagonistic culture, such as Islamism. Germany saw the European Union as a symbol of its redemption from its horrific past. The attitude of Angela Merkel, while certainly morally appreciable, was to open the gates of Europe completely to the immigrants, with the particular aim of helping political refugees. In contrast to Nazism, which was totally nationalist, the Germany of the European Union chose to be European and post-nationalist. Its former xenophobia was transformed into welcoming all strangers, and its old aggressive attitude became a hymn for peace.

Of course, this idea was connected to the concept of European leadership, which has always unconsciously been important in Germany’s mindset, along with economic dynamism and a sense of superiority. However, many other countries of the European Union did not perceive this attitude as a positive example. While the idea of saving the people in danger was accepted almost everywhere (at least in Western Europe), as a matter of fact, it was then followed by the problem of quotas and a fair division of this work. But the idea was never put into practice because some countries, such as Hungary, simply refused any entrance to immigrants at all. Furthermore, while naval laws made it natural to carry the people rescued either to the closest port or to the nation of the rescue ship, frequent news reports of smugglers and human trafficking made the stream of immigration appear dubious and questionable. At the same time, Angela Merkel was losing the struggle to quash nationalism by removing ethnic, religious, and geographic borders. Her slogan, “We can do it,” today looks very much like the “Yes we can” of Obama.

In the end, Chancellor Merkel opened Germany’s borders to an influx of more than one million9 Middle Eastern refugees, many of whom German citizens would soon want to expel. This only served to fuel the growth of nationalism in the countries where the immigrants were explicitly not welcomed, and national pride did not suffer any guilt feelings for this at all. Such countries included Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, which sat decisively on the other side of the argument, declaring that immigration was destroying their national identity and also, not least, that their economy could not stand such a burden.

Italy’s Interior Minister Matteo Salvini closed the country’s ports to migrant boats in June 2018, and in November, his government passed a new law, abolishing the “humanitarian protection” category for migrants who do not meet Italy’s asylum criteria. As a result, many had to leave the immigration center and entered a legal limbo, drifting in a situation of uncertainty that pushes them in an outlaw situation or toward some other European country. Non-governmental organizations have come under pressure to stop Mediterranean operations that are believed to be not only rescue operations but also a sort of hidden alliance with the criminal organizations that sell cheap travel in extremely unsound boats to poor people and entire families with children, thereby increasing the fatal incidents in the Mediterranean Sea. Actually, some of these criminal organizations trafficking in human beings are suspected of pushing people to leave, taking their money, and holding women and children in camps in Libya in inhuman conditions. At the same time, the growing presence of immigrants in Europe has created many fundamental problems in Europe, such as increasing the rate of family violence and exploitation of women, putting in danger the freedom of women,10 raising levels of homophobia,11 increasing criminality,12 and in some cases even feeding the ranks of terrorist groups.13

In turn, the social upheaval in the European countries undermines leadership and the relations between nation states. European leaders held an emergency summer summit in 2018, but they have so far dodged any formal agreement on refugee quotas, with central states rejecting any form of mandatory action. Meanwhile, the migrants are looking for new routes and new kinds of transportations, like small dinghies that bring only little groups across stormy seas. They disembark in new landing sites and rapidly disappear into the countryside.

On the other hand, in November 2017, a coalition of human rights groups published a list of the 33,293 people who died since 1993 “as a result of the militarization of asylum laws, detention policies, and deportations in Europe.”14 It showed that the generous attitude of opening doors does not always fit in with the structure of existing immigration laws. The instructions that appear in the general guides for the reception of people in danger and the regulations for those who wish to remain in the countries where they land are null and void, in spite of the apparent invitation for them to stay. Furthermore, it is almost impossible to accurately identify, qualify, and build categories for these “migrants” (as they are often defined by the NGOs and even the Pope) because it is almost impossible to ascertain whether an immigrant really provides his real name when asked to give his identity at the border.

Furthermore, those countries that have refused refugees without even trying to identify who is in danger have openly violated international law. Most critically of all, as far as a code of behavior is concerned, these countries have abandoned any “European criteria” reflecting an EU national identity as a result of the migration question, which is this code’s first test.

All attempts to regulate the traffic of migrants have gone in an irregular direction: The deal with Turkey in March 2016, which was to be the first real major obstacle to the flow of immigrants, has reduced the number of Syrians heading to Europe. But while 12 million people have been displaced by the Syrian civil war overall, a total of 5 million, which is growing by the minute, are living outside their country, many of whom are in urgent need of the humanitarian assistance.15

Challenges and Moral Duties

The truth is that even the most dedicated research on how to deal with the migrants, divide the refugees from economic migrants, and establish a legality connected to a moral stance does not work. At the end of the day, both the nations that have welcomed these migrants and the countries that keep them out are all on the same page. The migrants suffer when they are kept out of a country, but they also suffer when they find themselves in camps inside the borders they so much wanted to reach. There, living conditions are often terrible. Sometimes, they wait months before their situation is examined and their requests are taken into consideration.

International law aims to protect refugees while allowing the host countries to retain control of their borders and presence. The definition of a refugee is subject to a constant struggle over who is deserving and who is not. The UNHCR Refugee Convention of 1951 defines a refugee as a person who has left his country due to a “well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, or membership of a particular social group or political opinion.” This definition did not cover everyone who fled a war zone, but it changed following pressure from the newly independent African states in the 1960s and later on again from the Latin American countries in the 1980s. However, while people forced from their homes by economic disaster or catastrophic climate change are still not included in this definition, no one can deny that they are a growing mass today. In effect, the power to decide who is a refugee remains mostly in the hands of nation-states, and when people flee from a country where terrorism causes catastrophes or war displaces the masses, it is still very hard to consider their needs without also considering local public opinion, which is becoming disgruntled by the presence of so many immigrants.

Therefore, once migrants cross the sea after incredible adventures and pass through the cruel filters of the smugglers, traffickers, and similar, they are sequestered in remote accommodations far from city centers. Their right to work is limited, and their access to welfare benefits is selective. But in no way is their problem solved, and neither is the recipient state’s dilemma. The era of immigration has created a gray zone where the Western morality of respecting human life becomes a real question mark. When the former Italian Minister of the Interior Marco Minniti declared his victory in containing the refugees, it was quite clear that the moral price he paid went far beyond the normal standard, having obliged, with the use of violence, men, women, and children to remain in Libya against their will. The same problem arose when other migrants were sent back to Libya after an agreement signed with the Libyan navy.

Sometimes the privileges given to migrants cause problems for the citizens of the host nation, such as when the economic help received by the immigrants in the form of pensions and subsidies are used to buy goods back in Morocco or Libya rather than being channeled back into the host country’s economy. Suspicions may arise over the reasons why a migrant is demanding asylum. Furthermore, there are currently 66 million displaced persons in the world, and the number of 700,000 people waiting for a possibility to sail from the coast of Libya is enough to make both the leadership and the populations of EU countries question the extent of the duty that European society has toward this overwhelming mass.

In 2012, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Prize as “a community of nations that has overcome war and fought totalitarianism” and “will always stand by those who are in pursuit of peace and human dignity,” as declared by Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission. But can this be said when many Europeans feel their “peace and human dignity,” cultures, and traditions that led to the establishment of democracy and the renunciation of violence are threatened? Paradoxically, the effort to achieve peace of mind for the wave of immigrants is undermining the peace of mind for an entire continent.

Frighteningly, European racism is showing its persistence as part of the fight against immigration, while, conversely, the real foundations of various popular fears are evident. There is a clear, general lack of a moral stance within the shared laws or principles that should guide policy, and there is also an inability to measure the real problems included in the immigration question, such as a possible existential threat to Europe’s culture and its citizens.

Mass displacement and the inability to deal with it are not only causing humanitarian problems for Europe’s democratic societies. The immigration question needs to be resolved in its entirety, taking into account its cultural, security, religious, and social magnitude, including the problems of terrorism and the disruption of western liberal customs. Unfortunately, many governments prefer not to emphasize this issue.

In 2003, the European Union financed a research project on growing anti-Semitism, as a revival of this ancient hatred had been noticed. The results were such that Romano Prodi, then president of the European Commission, decided that the results should not be made public. This was because it was extremely clear that contemporary anti-Semitism in Europe had a major Muslim component. This is just one example of how the culture of the immigrants can clash with Western values. The fact that right-wing parties in Europe have taken power in Hungary, Poland, Italy, and Austria, and have obtained significant gains almost everywhere else, cannot, therefore, be attributed only to “populism” and “demagoguery.”

In this case, it is neither wickedness nor a negative interest that is at stake, but rather identity, security, and order, which people, rightly or wrongly, consider to be priorities. The idea of uniting the nation-states of Europe has shown its limits. Older values, like land, culture, belonging, and language, are taking center stage, and the individualistic idea is entering a crisis. People prefer to revere the concept of solidarity for their own nation. While the idea of peace has not been disregarded, today it has again become connected with homogeneity. Is this attitude right or wrong? In truth, while the question of self-defense has been put in a corner in recent years, clashes of culture and religions and use of terrorism have become more acute despite the efforts of leaders to silence them.

This book intends to explore these intricate and contradictory issues, and it attempts to provide workable solutions to the problems of migration by shying away from both naïve openness and cruel rejection.

We will try to give answers to the following questions:

  • What moral and legal criteria should be followed to differentiate between those we must admit and those we can or must reject?
  • How can orderly migration pathways and selection procedures be assured?
  • When is it morally wrong and when is it reasonable to deny entry to a migrant?
  • What can we demand both from migrants and the host society for everyone to coexist peacefully, respecting the law and the individual rights of both sides?
  • What can be done to address the root causes of migration in the countries of departure to minimize the flow of migrants as much as possible?

Answering these questions will help to establish a moral code to be used as a compass for civil nations in deciding when and how to welcome or reject migrants, balancing the duties of protection toward the host population with those we treat humanely by virtue of our cultural and ethical heritage.

* * *


  4. Ibid.
  7. Source: IOM. ;
  10. EFD research +
  13. Europol. See chapter 2.
  15. Ibid.

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Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13) A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books and presently is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.