Good Will to Migrants? A European Christmas Story

Dermot Hodson |

Illustration (copyright under CC): Refugee by Rosy / Bad Homburg / Germany via Pixabay.com

Italian authorities’ response to two migrant shipwrecks a quarter-century apart reveals how much European immigration and asylum policies have hardened. Such policies could become more draconian still after next year’s European Parliament election, writes Dermot Hodson. 

Every year, the Austrian delegation of the European People’s Party, a centre-right political group, donates a Christmas tree to the European Parliament. Grown in Mariazell, in the picturesque forests of the Styrian Alps, this carbon-neutral silver fir is transported to Brussels by train and displayed in the European Union’s legislature as a symbol of hope and friendship.  

A spirit of solidarity was visible on the day after Christmas 1997, when a rusty ship from Turkey hit a sandbank near Badolato, a tiny town on Italy’s Ionian coast. Local boats rushed to rescue the Ararat’s 825 passengers, most of whom were Kurds fleeing violence in Northern Iraq and South-eastern Turkey.  

Gerardo Mannello, the mayor of Badolato, quickly found housing for twenty families and temporary accommodation for the other arrivals, while Interior Minister Giorgio Napolitano promised to look favourably on asylum claims from Kurds. Our ‘doors must be wide open’ to those facing persecution, insisted Italian President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro in his New Year address. 

The politics of European migration is unrecognisably different these days, as seen in February of this year when the Summer Love travelled from Turkey to Crotone, a port city ninety minutes north of Badolato. Nearly two hundred migrants, most of them from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Iran, had crammed onto the wooden schooner, which struck a rock near the Italian shoreline and broke apart. At least ninety-four people lost their lives in the freezing waters, thirty-five of them children, after the Italian coast guard failed to launch a rescue operation until it was too late.  

In the blame game that followed, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister, Matteo Salvini, insisted that help would have come sooner if Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, had declared the Summer Love to be in ‘life-threatening danger‘. But NGO’s accused Italian authorities of deliberately delaying search and rescue operations to deter migrants.  

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni expressed her ‘deep sorrow for the many lives cut short‘ by this tragedy. However, she failed to disown her earlier threat to ‘repatriate migrants‘ and then ‘sink the boats that rescued them‘ and instead called on the EU to help stop ‘illegal departures‘. The European Commission duly obliged by signing a memorandum of understanding with Tunisia to return migrants entering the North African republic to their countries of origin.  

This migration pact was a major win for Meloni, who had travelled to Tunis with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for last minute talks with President Kais Saied. The deal proved more costly for von der Leyen, who faced intense criticism for promising €100 million in EU funding for Tunisian border officials accused of ‘serious abuses against Black African migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers‘. 

On a recent visit to Lampedusa, an Italian island which has recorded more than 100,000 migrant arrivals this year, von der Leyen explained her thinking. Irregular migration was, she told journalists, ‘a European challenge that requires a European answer and solution‘.  

The Commission chief was right that European countries have stood together in the face of acute migration challenges. When 1.5 million people claimed asylum in the EU in 2015, Europe’s Schengen’s passport free zone was said to be on the  brink of collapse, but the storm passed and a return to permanent border checks between EU members was avoided. 

After Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the EU quickly activated its Temporary Protection Directive, giving Ukrainians immediate refuge for up to two years, including access to accommodation, health care, education and other essential social services. To date, more than four million Ukrainians have availed of such protection. 

Ursula von der Leyen’s strategy of keeping Giorgia Meloni close and praying for ‘unity‘ was dealt a heavy blow by the Italian Prime Minister’s surprise announcement in November that migrants rescued at sea would be brought to Albania to have their asylum claims assessed. The European Commission was given ‘practically zero notice‘ of this deal, which critics fear will make it easier for Italy to return migrants to places of danger, in violation of international law.  

Despite such controversy, Austria, Denmark and Germany are all considering processing asylum claims in third countries. That the British government might set aside human rights law to salvage its plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda shows the dangerous direction in which European migration policy is headed. 

Christmas should be a time for cheer and good will to all. Those who gather round the European Parliament’s festive silver fir to sing carols and sip mulled wine this year should remember the story of the Ararat and what it tells us about the importance of solidarity towards migrants facing persecution.

Next year’s European Parliament election could see the European People’s Party form an alliance for the first time with the European Conservatives and Reformists, a group which counts Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy as members as well as anti-migrant parties from across the European Union. If this alliance succeeds, Europe’s doors will no longer be open but slammed firmly shut.

Dermot Hodson is a professor at Loughborough University London and author of Circle of Stars: A History of the EU and the People Who Made It, which is published by Yale University Press.