Gaza war whips up anti-immigrant winds in Europe

EU countries aim to outsource asylum problems as protests stoke right-wing sentiment

British Home Secretary Suella Braverman, pictured at Greece's heavily fortified border with Turkey, said the UK could learn much from Athens' hardline policies on migration. Stefan Rousseau / Press Association
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A spread of the Israel-Gaza conflict into Egypt would be very dangerous, Greece’s Migration Minister Dmitris Kairidis said at an Ankara meeting 16 days into the war, because Egypt “has a very big population”.

His mind was on migration.

Europe must be vigilant to the risk of a new refugee crisis, Mr Kairidis said, needing “better guarding of borders, combating criminal networks of smugglers, returns for those who do not get asylum”.

Although few have been as open as he was, the war in Gaza is hanging over Europe as an anti-immigrant wind blows through its capitals.

As the war deepens Europe’s desire to outsource asylum problems to the other side of the Mediterranean, nationalist voices have seized on Islamist elements coming to the fore in some pro-Palestinian protests.

What has happened since October 7 has reinforced aspirations to have agreements in place to return migrants to their home countries
Anastasia Karatzas, European Policy Centre

Germany, France, Italy and others have proposed tough measures in recent days as they look to send away asylum seekers, avoid a repeat of the 2015 refugee crisis and appease voters tempted by a rising far right.

While most of these policies were in the pipeline before Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, the war could throw them into difficulty as Europe’s partners in the region made it clear that they will not open their borders.

And unlike in previous crises such as Afghanistan and Ukraine, there has been no talk of the EU opening up refugee routes for Palestinians.

And a host of policy announcements show they are tightening up before any spillover from the conflict is detected.

“What has happened since October 7 has, if anything, reinforced aspirations to have agreements in place” on returning migrants to their home countries, Anastasia Karatzas, an analyst at the European Policy Centre, told The National.

“We can see that there has been mention once again of the strategic value of engaging with Egypt.

"This has also come alongside a desire to strengthen efforts in the region, for example increased support to countries like Jordan and Lebanon.

“But there are also questions about whether that aligns with the objectives of the third countries. There are difficulties concerning the outbreak of war in Gaza.

"Countries in the region, particularly Egypt, have been very clear that they are not willing to accept refugees or migrants in the same way.”

Italian deal

On October 16, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s office ordered new border checks between Italy and Slovenia due to an “intensification of crisis hotspots at Europe’s borders, particularly following the attack against Israel”, which it said had “increased the threat of violent action”.

Elected on a platform of cracking down on immigration, Ms Meloni’s hard-right government has instead presided over an increase in arrivals to Italy’s shores through the Mediterranean.

In September an estimated 5,000 people arrived on one day, at a level not seen since 2017.

Another refugee crisis is the last thing Ms Meloni needs and she sought to get a grip this week by announcing a deal with Albania to build two asylum shelters in the Balkan country, keeping people off Italian territory.

“Mass irregular immigration is a phenomenon that the European Union, the member states of the European Union, cannot deal with alone,” she said.

Details were murky, but Italy says the centres could hold 3,000 people at a time while they wait for asylum claims to be processed.

The European Commission, usually sceptical of such deals, said it needed more information.

Amnesty International said the plan was “illegal, unworkable and it must be scrapped”.

The deal with a European nation came despite a prolonged diplomatic offensive by Ms Meloni in North Africa, which has so far failed to produce a deal on deportations.

“Countries of origin don’t co-operate on this,” said Camille Le Coz, an associate director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe. "It's been the case for decades.

“There are ways, I think, to make them more amenable to the demands of Europe but it cannot be just going to them and trying to pressure them until they agree, because they have their own public opinion to work with.”

German debate

Talks stretched deep into the night between Chancellor Olaf Scholz and the leaders of Germany’s 16 states as they struggled this week with how to bring down asylum numbers.

As of October 31, the number of first-time asylum claims this year was already 49,500 more than in all of last year, and local authorities say they are overstretched.

A 17-page document agreed to by the weary politicians called for various improvements in border and asylum management.

But it was one sentence that caught the eye, where Mr Scholz’s government said it would examine the idea of handling asylum claims in third countries.

That Mr Scholz’s heart is not in the idea was made clear at a briefing the next day when his representative spoke of “practical problems” and “high legal hurdles”.

But the concession underlined the pressure he is under on migration.

With the far right riding high in the polls, ministers have also moved to speed up deportations by targeting criminal gang members, and are seeking deportation deals with countries including Morocco and Kenya.

At the same time, the unease caused by incidents of Gaza-related anti-Semitism in the country that perpetrated the Holocaust has given voice to right-wing politicians who have long opposed mass migration.

“Anyone who warned of the social consequences and security risks of uncontrolled migration was for a long time reflexively vilified,” said former minister Jens Spahn, a senior figure in the conservative opposition.

“Today we see the consequences of this naivety on our streets.”

French bill

France’s Senate this week began debating a bill that would widen the government’s powers to expel migrants it considers to be dangerous, even if they have put down roots in France.

Lacking a majority in Parliament, President Emmanuel Macron’s government is trying a tricky balance of throwing bones to the left and right in a package that provides for some irregular migrants to be allowed to work.

There is a back-up option of forcing the bill through without a vote, but this would cost political capital for Mr Macron – it caused riots when it was used for a pension bill – and for Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, who is widely tipped as a presidential candidate in 2027.

“Because the government has been really struggling to find a majority in Parliament to pass the bill, I would say it has increasingly gone on the right side of the political spectrum, which has meant the conversation about labour migration has just disappeared,” said Ms Le Coz, after senators passed a measure limiting access to health care for undocumented migrants.

The bill is “creating more tension, not doing much on integration, not responding to the needs of the labour market, pretending that cutting [health care] is going to have any impact on irregular migration,” she said.

“It won’t, because people are not coming to France to seek health benefits from the French system.”

The debate on the bill has been less influenced by the war in Gaza and more by the killing of a school teacher in an apparent Islamist attack on October 13, Ms Le Coz said.

But Mr Darmanin announced a nationwide ban on pro-Palestinian protests because of fears of public disorder and said any foreigners guilty of anti-Semitism should have their residence permit withdrawn.

Lessons from Britain

UK Home Secretary Suella Braverman, embroiled in a row at home over her handling of pro-Palestinian protests, was on the road last week meeting European governments sympathetic to her hardline stance on migration.

Austria said it was “highly interested” in Britain’s proposal to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, a policy being reviewed by the courts.

The legal barriers would be still higher for EU member Austria, which wants to change European rules on the subject – something Ms Karatzas said was unlikely.

“The EU line whenever news is broken of these agreements is very much that it’s not compatible with EU law,” she said.

“Of course, it remains to be seen what these agreements will look like but in terms of legalising externalisation at an EU law level, I don’t foresee that this will be likely in the next few years.”

Ms Braverman made another stop in Greece, where she said Britain had a “huge amount to learn” from a country repeatedly accused of pushing back migrant boats in the Mediterranean.

Turkey and Greece, frequently at odds at their border, meanwhile used Mr Kairidis’s visit to Ankara to promise they would “enhance and increase co-operation on the fight against irregular migration”.

Greece, Mr Kairidi says, had seen a significant number of Palestinians arrive from Egypt in the months before the war.

But he said the rapprochement with Turkey is “already paying off in reduced flows”.

Updated: November 10, 2023, 6:00 PM