The Humanity Factor

Europe’s Uncommon Decency: Saving Lives Now, Sorting Out Later

Trump bashed Europe for its chaotic approach to immigration. Europeans call it standing up for basic human dignity.

01.30.17 6:00 AM ET

ROME—More than 1,000 refugees and migrants arrived in Italy by sea on Friday, the same day U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order barring people from seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the United States.

The figure is small compared to what will be surely be yet another record-breaking year for migration in Italy. None of the new arrivals were vetted—extremely or otherwise—before they were rescued. It’s rather inconvenient to verify documents and social networking activity when the potential refugee’s head is bobbing up and down in the icy water.

Instead Italy, along with Greece, saves their lives and brings them into Europe thanks to the Coast Guard and rescue ships like SOS Méditerranée and Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) that trawl the waters for boats in peril.

The alternative to these rescues is to simply look away and let the refugees and migrants drown and wash up on shore like the now long-forgotten little Syrian boy named Aylan Kurdi whose photo made the world care for one all-too-brief moment.

What happens to those who survive the voyage varies. Some are eventually deported back to their countries of origin, but they all get a chance to exercise their “right to seek and enjoy asylum,” which is a fundamental clause in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights established in 1951 in response to the atrocities of the Holocaust. No one gets turned away without a chance to prove they might deserve to stay.

Trump tweeted about the “horrible mess” of Europe’s migration plan as one of his justifications for his hard-line stance. “Our country needs strong borders and extreme vetting, NOW. Look what is happening all over Europe and, indeed, the world—a horrible mess!”

It is no exaggeration that Europe’s migration crisis is a mess. There are Syrian refugees sleeping in sub-degree weather in Serbian train stations, burning fruit boxes to stay warm. There are Nigerian teenagers forced into sex slavery in Italy. More than 10,000 minors have disappeared in the last two years, no doubt sucked into crime and corruption rings that exploit the weak.

Because of the sheer number of arrivals—more than 300,000 people arrived in 2016 to Italy and Greece and more than a million the year before—asylum applications take many months to be processed before people can join families or get settled. All of that costs Europe a lot of money and manpower.

But Europe does it because, no matter how costly or inconvenient, it is still the right thing to do. And Europeans agree that picking and choosing which refugees to save and which to let die is just wrong.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel didn’t mince words in her condemnation of Trump’s executive order, which she did during a phone call in which she reminded him of the Geneva Convention. Her spokesman then charged that the fight against terrorism “does not justify putting people of a specific background or faith under general suspicion.” Germany has taken more than 1.3 million asylum seekers since 2015.

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, just coming off an American love fest with Trump and the Republican Party, seemed to have morning-after-regrets about holding hands with Trump. She is now suddenly under pressure to cancel Trump’s planned state visit unless he reconsider the ban, which she now calls “divisive, unhelpful and wrong.”

In France, which has Europe’s highest Muslim population, President François Hollande urged Europe to band together to offer a “firm” response to the new American president. “Faced with an unstable and uncertain world, withdrawal into oneself is a dead-end response,” he said. “And when [Trump] refuses the arrival of refugees, while Europe has done its duty, we have to respond.”

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The foreign minister of Luxembourg, Jean Asselborn, worried that the ban would spark hatred toward the West. “The decision is bad for Europe,” he warned. “Because it’s going to strengthen even further the mistrust and hatred towards the West in the heart of the Muslim world.”

Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni also chimed in, tweeting that “open society, plural identity, no discrimination are the pillars of Europe.” He has called a cabinet meeting to discuss the issue and any potential security problems due to backlash that might arise at the upcoming G7 meeting in Sicily in May, which Trump is expected to attend.

The United Nations Refugee Agency UNHCR took a more diplomatic approach, praising the United States for its historical role in refugee resettlement. “The longstanding U.S. policy of welcoming refugees has created a win-win situation: it has saved the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in the world who have in turn enriched and strengthened their new societies. The contribution of refugees and migrants to their new homes worldwide has been overwhelmingly positive,” the agency said in a joint statement with the International Organization for Migration. “We strongly believe that refugees should receive equal treatment for protection and assistance, and opportunities for resettlement, regardless of their religion, nationality or race.”

The travel ban won’t affect the majority of European nationals, though a handful of dual national politicians in Germany and the U.K. and several professional athletes are concerned. And most refugees in Europe have already been resettled or are waiting to make their homes here, not waiting to move to America, with the exception of family reunification cases that are now in limbo.

Trump’s edicts won’t make a huge difference in Europe’s “chaos.” But Europeans are alarmed.

“This decision can only cause us concern,” Jean-Marc Ayrault, the foreign minister of France said Sunday of Trump’s first week in office. “But there are also a lot of other issues that are causing us concern.” That sentiment is echoed throughout the continent.