Journalism in the Public Interest

Q&A: Can a Divided Europe Handle the Refugee Crisis?

Deaths at sea and a chaotic refugee influx reflect the failure of European Union leaders to settle on a common immigration policy, one of Italy’s top elected officials tells ProPublica.

Migrants disembark from the Italian Coast Guard ship Peluso, on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, in May. (Mauro Buccarello/AP)

Laura Boldrini, the president of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies, has unusually strong credentials to discuss the immigration crisis gripping Europe. She worked for a quarter century at United Nations humanitarian agencies, serving as spokeswoman in southern Europe for the U.N. High Commission on Refugees.

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Boldrini, 54, saw global migration at the front lines: the Italian island of Lampedusa, where seagoing migrants and refugees wash up, dead and alive, on the tides of despair and poverty; the refugee centers in Sicily where human traffickers exploit teenage Nigerian girls forced into prostitution; and the Greek coasts that are beachheads for an unprecedented wave of refugees from Syria and Afghanistan.

In 2013, she was elected to Italy’s Parliament as a candidate of today’s governing center-left coalition. Two days after she took office, she was catapulted into the presidency of lower house of the Legislature, the equivalent of the U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Boldrini recently was in New York City and spoke with ProPublica about the immigration drama. European Union leaders have since moved closer to approving a plan to accept 160,000 refugees, though many see it as insufficient. This interview has been translated from Italian and edited for brevity.

Q. What are the roots of Europe’s immigration crisis and what are the solutions?

I am not surprised that these migratory flows have increased. Last year, we attained the terrible record of 60 million refugees in the world, the highest number since World War II, because conflicts have increased. Sadly, solutions are not in sight. There is intense donor fatigue, which reduces the level of aid in the refugee camps, and this pushes people to travel further and risk their lives. There are protracted crises such as Syria. In the refugee camps, whoever has some savings left decides to attempt the big leap. We have to understand that during these past five years, nations such as Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon have accepted millions of refugees in their nations.

Immigration is the offspring of unresolved crises, the first collateral effect and the most visible one. In Europe, we are surrounded by instability. We have a nation like Libya a hundred miles away from us. A nation divided with a government in Tobruk, another in Tripoli, and then the tribes. We also have Syria, Iraq, the Horn of Africa. Somalia, still a hostage to al-Shabaab (the Islamic terrorist group). Eritrea, which has a dictator named Afwerki who forces young men and women to do indefinite military service and does not permit any freedom of expression.

Europe right now is not succeeding in responding to the challenges it confronts. We have to take advantage of this moment of difficulty and the opportunity it presents. In 70 years we have done a lot to construct our European identity. In a short time, we have undertaken an extraordinary journey. We have freedom of movement. When I was a girl, there were internal European borders. Our young people can study in any country. We have judicial cooperation. So this is positive, but it is no longer enough.

Refugees clamber through barbed wire as they cross from Serbia to Hungary in August. (Darko Bandic/AP)

Now we have gone halfway, we have reached a ford in the river. Because today without a strong Europe, we don’t count for anything compared to the rising global giants. We have to cross the ford and restart the motor of European integration, a motor that has stopped. But that means we have to give up something. We have to give up power to the European institutions. We have to share sovereignty. We need a single economic policy. A single European industrial policy. And an immigration policy.

It’s not possible that only Italy and Greece receive migrants and that Germany is the only place where people go to request asylum. Or Sweden. If we are a union, we have to cooperate.

Q. What are some concrete responses to the migration crisis that Europe should implement?

We have to develop a coordinated asylum system. And have the same standard in all countries: European teams that manage the asylum issue. The same thing in Greece as in Norway as in Sweden as in other nations. If an Eritrean comes and asks me for asylum in Italy, he gets the same treatment as he would in Sweden. Today, on the other hand, if the same person requests asylum in one country he gets a certain response; if that person makes the request in another country, he gets a different response. So it’s clear that they all want to go where they have the best chance of getting asylum. This leads to asylum-shopping in the EU.

We have to act on several levels. We have to continue to save human lives at sea. Not everyone agrees with this. But it’s inhuman to think that if you have a passport, you get saved, and if you don’t, you drown. But there are people who say that. I am proud that my country has taken the lead on this issue. We did Mare Nostrum (an Italian rescue operation in the Mediterranean) alone for a year at a cost of 9 million euros a month. Then it became European. Today we have Operation Triton.

Next: How do we reduce the number of people who risk human life at sea? We have to give an alternative, because if people know there is an alternative they won’t risk their lives. The most concrete idea is to act in transit countries with a certain level of stability. You could create centers where international agencies do work – which, in fact, they are doing now, but with very limited resources. They do the screening of asylum requests and then offer quotas to nations that adhere to the program. You can do this in Tunisia, Egypt. It could be done by EU offices, not just UNHCR.

Q. Today’s Islamic terrorists are less likely to arrive by sea as illegal immigrants than they are to be born in Paris or London or Rome. But there is at least some risk of bad people taking advantage of the chaotic immigration flows to reach Europe. Can Europe absorb and integrate so many people from war-torn Muslim countries?

We can’t lower our guard. We have to be alert. We have to know who these people are. Of course, often they don’t have documents. So you have to work with fingerprints. I also would say that if you want to carry out a terrorist act, you don’t want to risk not making it. You want to be certain that you will arrive in Europe, and you can’t have that certainty if you try to come illegally by sea.

As for the second point you raise – radicalization – that is one of the most serious problems. And it gets worse if people are excluded. If they are made to feel that they don’t belong to a community. So I think we have to invest great effort and resources in policies of social inclusion. Because if a youth doesn’t have any future and feels excluded, cut-off, pushed aside, marginalized, he wants something to believe in. And there are these merchants of terror who peddle dreams.

Q. You call for a “United States of Europe” with stronger EU institutions and more political integration. But the climate in Europe seems to defy profound change. Is it really possible to reform the EU to make it more effective and cohesive on fronts such as immigration, security and justice?

How does the European system work now? The strongest entity is the European Council, which is comprised of heads of state. Decisions are made by heads of state and heads of governments, and each seeks to defend their own national interest. And therefore they are not dealing with how this reduces the power of the European institutions. Instead, they concern themselves with their own immediate consensus. They follow the poll results, the dictatorship of the opinion polls.

We can’t abandon the European dream. This is the critical moment to push harder. If there is fear, those who want to destroy the dream will win.

Q: On the day you entered politics, you had an experience that was emblematic of Europe’s crisis.

A: I decided to run for office in response to a request. It was a surprise. I was working in Greece. It was on a very rough day. I was in Athens at a center run by Medecins du Monde (Doctors of the World).

There was a long line of people at the medical center, but I noticed many of them were Greek (rather than immigrants). The director of the center told me yes, the number of Greeks continued to increase. The economic situation was so tough they couldn’t go to the hospital because they had to buy medicines there, and they didn’t have enough money. So already in 2013, the Greek crisis was manifesting itself.

And while I was talking to the director, a group of people arrived who were shouting. There was an African youth who was weeping desperately. We went outside and saw that this African youth’s face was all bloody and swollen. He had been beaten up by an extremist group. In Greece, these far-right groups form gangs, and when they see a person of color, they beat them up to make an example of them. He was just walking by. This happened in broad daylight.

Migrants, seen through the window of a police car, wait at the Greek-Macedonian border for Macedonian police to allow them to cross. (Santi Palacios/AP)

What affected me the most was what the victim’s African friends said. They were saying, in French: “That’s enough, put an end to it, what do you want? They beat you up, that’s what happens in Greece. You’re black, it’s normal that people beat you up.” There was an acceptance of this brutality.

That evening, I was writing about this incident on my blog for the La Repubblica newspaper when Nichi Vendola called. (Vendola was the President of the Puglia region at the time and leader of the Left Ecology Liberty party.) I didn’t know what he wanted. I burst out talking and told him about the whole horrible day. Then he said: “In fact, you have prepared the terrain for me. Today we are experiencing this situation in the entire Mediterranean. We want to give a new emphasis to the issue of rights. And since that’s what you have always worked on during these years, we want to present you as a candidate for political office.”

I told myself: I’ve worked for 25 years for the U.N. I have seen so many humanitarian crises in the world, from the Balkans to Afghanistan to Sudan. Pakistan. Iraq. I have seen the best and worst of the human race. Today, I have the possibility of doing something with all this experience, of using it in my country at the time when my country is living a difficult moment.

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