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How Europe Responds To Migrants


We've been hearing about the crackdown at the southern border of the United States. Something like that is also happening in Europe. Italy turned away a ship full of migrants - something that French President Emmanuel Macron called cynical and irresponsible. Spain said it would take the ship instead.

The incident was the latest in a series of tensions in Europe over immigration. We turn now to Elizabeth Collett. She directs the Migration Policy Institute Europe and joins us from Brussels. Thanks so much for being with us.

ELIZABETH COLLETT: It's a pleasure.

SIMON: Has immigration become an even more contentious topic in Europe with the populist political movements winning elections?

COLLETT: I think it's quite intertwined. I think what we're seeing now is something of a hangover from the crisis of 2015, 2016. A number of populist parties and far-right parties campaigned on the immigration issue, and so now we're seeing their successes and the fact that several of them have now come into government, further complicating the already complicated politics across Europe and trying to find some common ground on how to manage migration flows.

SIMON: Do southern European countries feel they've been asked to do more than northern European countries? Is that part of the lack of a common policy?

COLLETT: The challenge for southern European countries has been the search and rescue and the fact that arrivals oversea create additional complications, particularly humanitarian complications in terms of the vulnerability of those who are coming across in ships. And so they have to do a great deal in terms of reception and support of those people. Northern European states say, for their part, a number of those people, once they've arrived, move on through the European Union and find their way to northern Europe states, and they have the longer-term challenge.

Additionally to that, we now have a substantial European bloc who is questioning whether Europeans should be protecting refugees, whether it's the job of Europeans to offer asylum, and rejecting the idea of hosting refugees. And then underlying all of this is a scattering of states for whom this has not really been an issue.

SIMON: And a lot of European countries don't have a - well, don't have a history or commitment to being inclusive, do they?

COLLETT: I mean, a lot of European countries are countries of immigration and have been for decades. And so some of this conversation has become divorced from reality. This has become almost a sort of a neuralgic discussion around the fear of what may come in the future. It's not necessarily the numbers who are arriving now. And, indeed, the numbers who are arriving irregularly across the Mediterranean 2018 are far lower than in previous years.

It's this idea that governments do not have full control over this system that is undermining the confidence of publics - that because it is so visible when you see people arriving in great distress, whether in the Greek Highlands or across the central Mediterranean, that it has really seeped into the conscious of publics that this is a problem that needs to be fixed and needs to be fixed now.

SIMON: And is your impression it's as urgent an issue in Europe as it is in the United States at the moment?

COLLETT: It's hard to look at the numbers and say this is a crisis moment. Numbers are now back far where they were before the crisis. But what the crisis revealed for many European states is the absence of common ground and understanding how to manage this internally.

SIMON: Elizabeth Collett, director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe, thanks so much.

COLLETT: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.