CASTELBUONO, Sicily (CN) – Crises over immigration and borders are straining the European Union and have prompted an emergency meeting of the continent’s leaders to ease tensions.
On Sunday, nine European heads of state at the center of the immigration crisis are scheduled to meet in Brussels to take up the EU’s long-running crisis over immigrants and refugees from Africa and Asia.
Sunday’s gathering is in advance of a general assembly of the EU’s 28 heads of state at the end of June. Migration is the first item on the agenda for that meeting.
In the past several years, millions of non-Europeans fleeing impoverished and war-torn nations have sought asylum in Europe.
The height of the immigration flow was in 2015, when more than a million people sought asylum, according to Frontex, a European border and coast guard agency.
The agency says the number of people entering the EU as asylum-seekers has dropped off steeply since then. In 2017, the agency said it detected about 205,000 people entering the EU border without proper documents.
Fears over immigration – largely from war-torn Muslim nations – are being stoked by anger over terrorism. Europe has witnessed a series of terrorist attacks, with some occurring in cities and at public events.
The current turmoil over immigration was ignited by Italy’s new government, made up of the anti-immigrant northern Italian party known as the League and a left-leaning anti-establishment party known as the 5-Star Movement.
Upon taking office in early June, the League’s leader and Italy’s new interior minister, Matteo Salvini, sparked controversy when he issued an order blocking a non-government humanitarian ship carrying 629 people rescued from the Mediterranean from docking in an Italian port.
Italy is blocking future rescue vessels too. For now, Spain is taking in asylum seekers rescued at sea.
Across Europe, borders have tightened even as the number of asylum-seekers dwindles.
The participants at Sunday’s emergency meeting have a lot to talk about – besides the crisis in the Mediterranean. On Thursday, news media reported about 400 more asylum seekers were rescued from the sea.
In Hungary, a miles-long barbed wire fence on its borders with Croatia and Serbia has been erected, causing friction and trapping many asylum-seekers in the Balkans. Hungary has clashed with the EU after it demanded funds to pay for the fences.
In addition, border checks have been set up between Austria, Germany, Hungary and Slovakia. These measures break with the EU’s notion of a border-less federation.
Barbed-wire fences are also used in Spain.
In a controversial move, Spanish authorities patrol a barbed-wire barrier in Ceuta on continental Africa at the Straits of Gibraltar. Morocco disputes Spain’s claim to this city. The barrier has been strengthened in the past 15 years to stop migrants, but it remains a source of contention and anger.
Disputes are strong along the Italian and French border too.
French authorities are enforcing border controls in places and they have refused to allow undocumented asylum-seekers from leaving Italy to make it into France.
In some places, the police apparatus is being given more power to arrest and charge people for illegal immigration too.
Hungary’s parliament recently approved a law to make it a crime to either be an undocumented migrant or to even harbor one.
And in Italy, Salvini, the new interior minister, caused a new controversy this week when he declared he wants a census made of all the Roma people living in Italy.
Roma is a word commonly used today to refer to people from Eastern Europe, and more particularly to people long known as gypsies in Europe. Gypsies historically have wandered throughout the continent for centuries.
Salvini’s proposal was met with astonishment and invective by many Italian politicians, academics and citizens, particularly those on the left.
The League was voted into office by an Italian electorate worried about immigration. Salvini routinely blasts immigrants from his Twitter account. He campaigned on a promise to remove a half million undocumented migrants from Italy.
So far, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, the United Kingdom and Greece have taken in the bulk of asylum-seekers.
And these nations are showing signs of strain.
For example, Italian authorities have long complained that they are not given enough support by the EU to care for the tens of thousands of asylum-seekers in its custody.
Violence too against migrants and refugees is common across Europe. In Italy, migrants have been attacked and even killed.
But the EU’s strained border issues aren’t limited to refugees and migrants.
The EU and Britain are fighting over what the border in Northern Ireland will look like once Britain formally leaves the EU.
The EU and Ireland demand an open border and that the euro remain the currency in Northern Ireland, causing consternation for UK Prime Minister Theresa May and her supporters.
The issues over the border in Northern Ireland are pivotal in Brexit negotiations, which will be a topic of discussion at the European meetings at the end of June too.