Hit by migrants, ‘European values’ are crumbling

Hit by migrants, ‘European values’ are crumbling

The current president of Italy’s chamber of deputies, Laura Boldrini, knows a lot about refugees. Before she took over her latest public office during Italian Prime Minister Mateo Renzi’s term in 2013, she was the spokesperson for the U.N.’s High Commissioner for Refugees and dealt with the crisis of refugees and migrants flooding her country. As a journalist for RAI she covered world crises in such “hot spots” from Yugoslavia to Rwanda.

So, when the residents of Lesbos welcomed the Italian politician from the Left Ecology Freedom party last week to their island, they knew this would be a person who could understand them better. 

Out of almost 2,000 refugees and migrants who manage to reach the Aegean islands every day, Lesbos has taken the largest share. This big island - the third biggest in Greece - where a large part of its population claims ancestry from the cities and villages across the sea on the Turkish coast, knows what survival means.

The grandparents of the island’s present inhabitants had crossed the same sea some 90 years ago, escaping from a bloody war and a forced population exchange. 

During the current refugee crisis, Lesbos - known also as the “red island” because of its traditional strong support for communist and leftist parties for more than half a century - showed a characteristic communal spirit towards refugees. With the country already deep in an economic crisis for more than six years, central Greek authorities unable to cope with a costly and demanding problem that stretched their capacity over the limits saw the mobilization of the inhabitants of Lesbos to help the refugees as a welcoming helping hand. 

However, since last summer, when the world was admiring photos of the “grandmothers of Lesbos” feeding a migrant baby or watching Susan Sarandon holding rescued migrant children in her arms while accusing politicians of causing unfair wars, things have changed for the worse. 

Now, having realized that it is one thing to keep an open-door policy and another to manage such a large number of migrants in your own backyard, Europeans have indulged in exploring ways to avoid the problem by pushing back refugees to border countries like Greece and Italy and negotiating with Turkey to keep everybody on its land. 

A recent move, which was agreed to by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu in Ankara, to involve a small NATO flotilla with Germany, Canada, Greece and Turkey in order to re-energize monitoring and search processes to stop refugee smugglers in the Aegean and Mediterranean, was the latest attempt to keep the problem away from the heart of Europe.    

Many EU officials and politicians have visited Lesbos Island recently and saw the situation on the ground.

Most acknowledged the enormity of the task but many blamed Greece for inadequacy and gave the country three months to organize “hot spot” centers on five Aegean islands to process migrants and refugees. If not, they said, Greece may find itself out of the Schengen zone.

Ms. Boldrini had a different approach. She visited the places where refugees were being carried to the shore; she wore a life jacket herself and asked for it to become a symbol for all of Europe. She threw some flowers in the sea in memory of the drowned ones and visited the “grandmothers of Lesbos,” thanking them “on behalf of all of Europe.” 

“In Lesbos,” she said, “The fate of Europe is at stake. All the EU institutions should come and see what is happening. The EU states should take up their responsibility and help Greece and Italy, who are carrying the burden of the refugee crisis.”

Ms. Boldrini claimed EU countries which do not want refugees in their backyard are using the pretext that Greece has organizational problems with the hot spots. 

“The idea of kicking Greece today and Italy tomorrow out of the Schengen area is a negation of the principles and values of Europe,” she said.

Alas, we may have to search hard in order to find those principles and values of Europe these days. Looking at it in a different way, the migrant crisis looks like a serious miscalculation by the leader of the most powerful EU country - Germany - which has developed into an unsolvable European crisis. And with crucial general elections coming in one year for both Merkel and French President Francois Hollande, border countries like Greece and Italy may fall victim to rushed policies which may further test the principles and values of Europe.