Leading article: Europe shuts its eyes to the migrant challenge

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The Independent Online

Europe is engaged in a repellent exercise in hand-washing over the fate of migrants fleeing North Africa. For six hours on Sunday, the French authorities blocked trains containing Tunisian refugees from crossing the Italian border. This was disgraceful behaviour from France and a blatant breach of the Schengen agreement, which guarantees free movement across continental Europe.

But Italy's conduct has been just as bad. The Italian government, desperate to see the 25,000 or so migrants who have arrived in the country from North Africa in recent months move on, has issued thousands of temporary residency permits, which allow the recipients to travel freely across Europe. They know that many of the refugees from Tunisia have relatives in the former colonial power, France, and will head in that direction given an opportunity. Both nations want to make these migrants someone else's problem.

What makes all this especially reprehensible is that France and Italy each bear a large measure of responsibility for the chaos in North Africa. The Italian prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, got very close to the Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, who has since turned viciously on his own people.

France was similarly friendly with the Tunisian regime of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali before it imploded, setting off a succession of Arab uprisings. If France and Italy had not supported repressive regimes in North Africa for so long, it is possible this crisis would never have reached such proportions.

Further, the French government of Nicolas Sarkozy has taken a lead in the military intervention in Libya, which is destabilising the nation and threatening thousands of lives. Aerial bombing has a humanitarian justification, but it creates consequences. And outflows of refugees are one of them. It would seem that France is not prepared to deal with those consequences. The French president's enthusiasm for bombing Gaddafi is only matched by his determination to stop Libyan refugees crossing the Mediterranean.

Europe needs a united approach to the problems on its southern frontier. All nations need to do their bit, whether that means offering to resettle refugees, or contributing to the costs of doing so. Those nations closest to the turmoil, such as Italy and Malta, clearly need special support. The resources of the Italian island of Lampedusa, just 25 miles off the Tunisian coast, have been stretched beyond breaking point in recent weeks. But migration flows, crucially, must be treated as a common European challenge.

Yet Europe's leaders are ignoring it. The continent seems to be turning in on itself. The breakthrough for the anti-immigrant True Finns party in Finland at the weekend reflects a broader trend across Europe. David Cameron's speech last week pledging to reduce immigration to the UK also reflected that mood. The International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, said yesterday that Britain would be funding the evacuation of 5,000 migrant Egyptian and Bangladeshi workers trapped in the Libyan city of Misrata. But if those workers were eager to come to Britain, it is a safe bet that our government would not be so keen to rush to the rescue.

The flows of desperate people across the Mediterranean have been a response to political instability in the Arab world. But they are likely to be followed later this century by environmental refugees, as runaway climate change spreads chaos across Sub-Saharan Africa. Europe needs to get its act together when it comes to dealing – efficiently and humanely – with refugees from the south. What we are witnessing now could well be merely a taste of what is to come.

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