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Refugee crisis: Europe must find migration consensus

Editor's desk - The Tablet - Sun, Jun 24th 2018

The story of the Aquarius is a sign that Europe is heading for a refugee crisis this summer worse than any previously. Aquarius, a motor vessel hired by non-government organisations including Médecins Sans Frontières, had rescued nearly 700 refugees, a quarter of them children, from unseaworthy small boats off the Libyan coast. It proposed to land them in Italy, as had been done previously.

Meanwhile, the new Italian interior minister, Matteo Salvini, fulfilling what he said was a campaign pledge, refused to let the Aquarius dock and told it to go to Malta instead. Malta also turned it away. Finally, the Spanish government graciously offered it a safe harbour. The Italian action was provoked by the justified feeling that Italy, along with Greece, has been made to bear the whole weight of the refugee flow from north Africa via Libya, which is beginning to reach its summer peak.

The European Union has tried to arrive at fair arrangements to spread refugees among all member countries, but many governments, including the United Kingdom’s, have resisted taking their share. The Hungarians have made their opposition a matter of principle. But behind this disagreement over practicalities lies a disagreement about morality. In the absence of a European consensus, each government panders to its local electorate, which, under the influence of local media, is quick to label refugees, indeed all immigrants, as a liability and a burden. Racism is never far below the surface when that happens.

The European Union is still a union of nation states. The Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 is still the basis of the prevailing theory of national sovereignty. But it also conditions how individual citizens of a nation state regard those who are not its citizens, the “them” rather than the “us”. But while nations are fairly clear about the duty of a nation state towards its own, there is less clarity regarding those who are without that citizenship, who may nevertheless have a humanitarian claim on that nation state.

The Christian duty is clear enough: there can be no moral distinction between a citizen and a non-citizen. There are no nation states in the Kingdom of God. All are responsible for all, as Pope John Paul II put it in 1987 in his encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis. But the practical consequences can in reality be untenable. Britain, for example, can afford to run a National Health Service but cannot afford to provide a World Health Service, offering medical treatment to anyone on the planet who needs it. Catholic teaching is also sensitive to the needs of local and national communities, giving individuals a sense of belonging to one place and to one local culture. The influx of large numbers of people with a different culture can have the effect of depriving those who already live there of something they are entitled to value.

A balance has to be struck, but who is to strike it? The European Union tried and failed. Unless an answer is found, however, there will be many more cases like Aquarius. This is going to be a bad summer for European solidarity, and for refugees.

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