I recently spent a few days in Rome and Venice. I won’t lie and say it was a business trip, but I did talk to some local people as well as cops and officials about the migrant/refugee/asylum seeker crisis that is overwhelming much of Europe. Italy is particularly vulnerable as islands in its territorial waters are just a short boat trip from North Africa. There is not a unified European policy regarding what to do about the influx and many politicians are cautiously referring to the newcomers using the neutral expression “migrants.”
More than 200,000 men, women and children sailing from ports in Libya have reached Italy this year and there are reports that as many as 250,000 more are waiting in camps to attempt the crossing into Europe. Many of the new arrivals in Italy are there for economic reasons, looking for jobs in northern Europe and Britain. They are predominantly male and young, but the number of those genuinely fleeing from the fighting in the Middle East accompanied by family members has also been increasing through the summer. Those arriving are mostly Muslims but include considerable numbers of Christians from sub-Saharan Africa, frequently from Nigeria and the Francophone states. Many of those picked up by the Italian navy at sea are being housed initially in squalid government run camps located on the island of Lampedusa before being moved on to Sicily and the mainland. There are now refuge processing centers surrounding Rome.
Americans following the crisis are probably unaware that there are bureaucratic and legal distinctions that govern different categories of people who seek to enter another country without correct documentation. A migrant is anyone who is moving from his own country to another. They have no special legal status and must comply with entry requirements of the country they are attempting to enter. They can be denied entry and deported back to their country of origin. For that reason, many economic migrants destroy their identity and travel documents so that they can claim that they come from a country that is a war zone, which potentially makes them a refugee.
A refugee is person who can demonstrate that has departed his or her country to escape war or persecution. The United Nations Refugee Agency administers the 1951 Refugee Convention, which defines as a refugee someone who “owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.” Signatories to the Convention, which includes all Western European countries and the U.S., cannot turn away refugees while their status is being investigated. Syrians, for example, are clearly legitimate refugees as are some Iraqis and Yemenis, but other migrants claiming something as difficult to demonstrate as political persecution, for example, can be and are challenged.
Upon arrival, refugees are frequently required to register and are given temporary United Nations identification documents that the host country issues and accepts as valid. Many avoid registering when they land in Greece or Italy because the actually want to be documented in Germany or Scandinavia, where they expect to find a more generous social benefit system and eventually work. By law they cannot be sent back to their home countries and can apply for asylum after their status has been confirmed. Refugees cannot work legally while they are awaiting resolution of their cases and actual asylum policies differ from country to country.
Given all of the uproar about a tidal wave of immigrants, I had arrived in Rome expecting to see the tourist areas overrun with Syrians begging in the streets like I had observed in Istanbul last summer, but it was not so. To be sure, there were a lot of illegal immigrants highly visible, attracted by lax entry procedures and law enforcement in Italy. Bangladeshis who enter the country on forged documents or are “trafficked” across the border have taken over the role of street vendors and workers in market stalls in Rome and also in Venice. Many of the itinerant sellers of stolen and/or knock off Gucci or Prada bags and shoes are now from Senegal. Nearly all are technically illegal.
According to the Roman and also the Venetian police, street crime has skyrocketed but most of it comes from the traditional players the gypsies, who live in camps outside the capital and on the mainland near Venice, and who can be seen moving through the tourist crowds in places like Piazza Navona and Piazza San Marco. The truly nasty crime involving violence, often linked to drugs and prostitution, is dominated by Eastern Europeans, most particularly Albanians and Kosovars.
So where are the refugees? Italian politicians and security officials note that though Italy is a relatively prosperous country, it has high unemployment and budget deficits making its ability to support and give jobs to tens of thousands of refugees non-existent. This creates a dilemma as the Italian government is legally obligated to deport no one who might be a legitimate refugee. So the solution is to let them pass through the country and go to northern Europe where there is work and more in the way of social services resources. Rather than register the new arrivals, the police sometimes take them to the train station or bus terminal and give them a ticket to Germany or France. Greece is behaving likewise as are several of the Balkan states. France, Switzerland and Austria have responded to the threat by building fences and increasing security along their borders but Germany is still relatively open if one can get to it. For Greeks and Italians their short term problem will hopefully become someone else’s long term problem.
Which is not to say that many Italians do not perceive that they are under siege from what they regard as alien cultures. Thousands of Chinese visitors are now highly visible, moving together in large groups just as the Japanese did in the 1970s and 1980s. They come on top of a very visible and growing number of Russians in the tourist centers. The Russians blend in reasonably well, but the Chinese are rather more exotic. In Venice my wife and I watched flotillas of gondolas going by loaded with Chinese tourists, 90% of whom were not looking at the Grand Canal at all but were rather using those abominable selfie-sticks to take pictures of themselves against the backdrop of the Venetian palazzi. It was as if demonstrating to those back at home that one was in Italy was the actual objective of the trip.
Local Venetians also complained that that Chinese investment companies, intent on creating a new Silk Road into Europe, were buying up properties all over the city and generally turning them into tourist junk shops selling Chinese produced souvenirs. If you buy a carnival mask or glassware in Venice the chances are it will be plastic or cheap molded glass, reportedly putting local skilled artisans who work with papier mache and Murano crystal out of work. It is indisputable that in many parts of Venice the cobblers, butchers and small shopkeepers who supported the 88,000 surviving Venetians have disappeared to be replaced by purveyors of tourist dreck, accelerating the city’s economic transformation to Disneyland on the Adriatic. In a June election, a conservative anti-immigrant Mayor was elected, though his solution to the city’s economic malaise appears to be to allow more ecologically damaging cruise ships to visit and bring in still more tourists.
There are a number of lessons to take home from what is happening in Italy. First, the European currency union plus the elimination of internal borders are misguided bits of policy that are finally bearing bitter fruit. Europe’s fundamental lack of genuine cohesion has meant that it is politically unable to deal as a unit with the problem caused by mass migration, which has opened up Pandora’s box in other ways. Rather than creating one homogeneous Europe, monetary integration has instead produced permanent winners and losers, damaging the countries that traditionally had weaker or developing economies, including Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain, by eliminating their ability to adjust their currencies to meet financial crises. It has also created what amounts to blowback directed against the stronger countries by enabling the export of unwanted migrants by the poorer states that are able to game the system, helping to feed the spread of the current refugee crisis. The original vision of the European Community was to have countries linked by free trade and a common culture but retaining their own national identity, currencies and immigration policies. It was abandoned to produce something like unification, which has not and never will work.
And I like seeing all the Chinese and Russians in Italy. They have escaped from their communist prisons and have now seen how the other half lives. They are unlikely to ever want to go back to things as they were and will demand that their own countries become more like what they are experiencing in the West. That is surely a good thing for the rest of the world and it is all accomplished without the United States having to invade anyone to bring it about.