Giorgia Meloni’s call for a “naval blockade” of illegal immigration across the Mediterranean Sea has got plenty of attention, but the likely future prime minister of Italy has another, more humane idea: create European asylum application centers in North Africa, so migrants — many don’t qualify for asylum — don’t attempt a futile and perilous sea journey.
Italy receives an unusually high (for Europe) share of asylum seekers from safe African countries: Ivory Coast, Mali, Morocco, Nigeria, Senegal, Tunisia. Unless they fear persecution in their home country for their political beliefs, religion or sexuality, those asylum seekers are usually sent back.
That doesn’t mean they leave. Immigration authorities don’t have the manpower to escort every rejected asylum seeker back home. Some countries refuse to take their people back. A share — we don’t know how many — remain in Italy illegally. Others try for asylum in another European country.
Since illegal aliens cannot legally work, many end up either exploited or as criminals, and often homeless.
Current system is far from ideal
Even for asylum seekers who are allowed to stay, the current system is far from ideal. Afghan and Syrian refugees typically pay smugglers thousands of dollars to get them into Europe. They travel by truck, by boat and on foot, for weeks or months, with poor hygiene and without access to medical services.
Recipient countries have a poor handle on the influx, which undermines public support for immigration altogether.
When arrivals surged in the Netherlands as a result of the lifting of COVID-19 travel restrictions, the fall of the Western-supported government in Afghanistan and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Dutch refugee centers quickly reached capacity and asylum seekers had to sleep outside in tents.
Some Dutch people took refugees in. Others called on the government to “close the border”. Support for the ruling liberal parties went down, support for the (far) right has gone up.
David Frum, a former speechwriter for American president George W. Bush, described the dynamic succinctly: “If liberals won’t enforce borders, fascists will.”
Closer borders is not realistic
Meloni is not a fascist, but her popularity at the expense of other right-wing parties certainly has to do with successive governments’ inability to control asylum immigration and to stop illegal immigration.
“Closing” the border is hardly an option for the Netherlands, which makes about a third of its money from exports. 96,000 trucks cross Dutch borders every day.
Nor is it for Italy, which has the fourteenth-longest coastline in the world. A “naval blockade” isn’t going to stop every small boat.
Process asylum applications abroad
So what can we do? I investigated various options for Wynia’s Week and found that a Dutch member of the European Parliament, Malik Azmani, has been arguing for processing asylum requests in overseas refugee centers since 2015. (Disclosure: Azmani and I are in the same political party.)
“That way, you remove the incentive for illegal migration and you keep track of who enters, when and how,” he told Het Financieele Dagblad last year. “You can prepare for that as a country. And you improve living conditions for all refugees, not just the few who happen to reach Europe.”
Turkey as a template
Europe has a similar arrangement with Turkey. The country hosts nearly four million Syrian refugees. The EU helps pay for refugee centers. For every Syrian who tries to enter Greece illegally and is returned, the EU will take one (registered) Syrian from a refugee camp.
The one-for-one is the ugly part of this deal, but the aspects that could be replicated are the EU funding refugee centers abroad and flying in refugees from such centers, so they don’t have to make the journey to Europe by themselves.
Meloni and Azmani would go further
Meloni and Azmani would go further and assess asylum applications on the spot. That means European immigration officials would need to be on site, probably with Frontex border agents to guard them.
It would require an investment from EU countries — and agreements with host countries, like Libya and Tunisia — but it’s a better plan that deploying half the Italian Navy to intercept refugee boats.