HAMBURG, Germany – This country has a new heroine.
She is Carola Rackete, she is 31, and she is the captain of Sea Watch 3, a German NGO-operated ship that on June 12 rescued 53 desperate migrants in international waters off Libya. Rather than return them to Libya, where they would face inhumane conditions, she plotted a course for Italy, where a populist government has closed the country’s ports to migrants.
After a two-week standoff with Italian authorities, she declared a “state of necessity” and a few days later docked her ship on the island of Lampedusa, bumping into a small patrol boat in the process. Rackete now faces possible trial and a potentially lengthy prison sentence. Jan Böhmermann, Germany’s answer to John Oliver, has helped raise a small fortune for her legal costs. The magazine Der Spiegel has her on its cover as “Captain Europe.”
But if Rackete’s actions were heroic, that’s largely because European immigration policy is scandalous.
The secret to Europe’s migration policy is outsourcing. In 2016, the European Union agreed to pay Turkey 6 billion euros to stanch the outflow of Syrian refugees and other migrants who had overwhelmed Europe the previous summer. It worked, in the sense that it made the crisis less visible and therefore made the sense of responsibility, and the undercurrent of guilt, go away.
Ask people how those refugees stuck in Turkey are actually faring and you’ll likely get a shrug. At least they are better off there than they were in, say, Aleppo.
The same can’t be said for the calamity that’s befallen migrants trapped in Libya, thanks in no small part to European diplomacy. In February 2017, a center-left Italian government, with EU support, struck a deal with the U.N.-recognized government in Tripoli to stand up a Libyan coast guard tasked with intercepting migrants, while also sharply limiting the ability of NGOs like Sea Watch to assist endangered migrants.
The policy has worked only too well: The Libyans have stopped tens of thousands of migrants from coming over. They’ve also done little to stop many of them from drowning. And the migrants they’ve seized on the high seas have in many cases been sent to detention facilities that are tantamount to death sentences. A report from Human Rights Watch documented “malnutrition, lack of adequate health care, and disturbing accounts of violence by guards, including beatings, whippings and use of electric shocks.”
Recently, one of those detention centers, near a military base in a suburb of Tripoli, was attacked in a rebel airstrike. At least 50 people were killed.
Those deaths may not be on Europe’s conscience, but they are, at least in part, a consequence of its policies. As Mathieu von Rohr wrote in a Spiegel editorial, “Today’s migration policies in the European Union are even more brutal than those pursued by Donald Trump.”
That observation leads to three reflections concerning the U.S. border crisis.
First, what’s happening may be an outrage, but it is considerably less outrageous than attempts by other magnet states to manage an unmanageable flow of migrants. That should temper talk of “concentration camps” and similar overblown rhetoric to describe an inundated system.
If a border patrol station like the one in McAllen, Texas, is a “concentration camp,” as some progressives would have it, what language is left for the Libyan detention facilities on which the EU relies for its border security?
Second, decriminalizing border entry, or extending access to health benefits for illegal immigrants, as some Democratic candidates suggest, would make the crisis dramatically worse. There were roughly 132,000 apprehensions at the southern border this May, more than nine times the figure of May 2017. A de facto open border of the sort that Europe briefly had in 2015 would send the numbers even higher, leading to a political backlash that would make the current Trumpist anti-immigrant fervor seem tame.
The ugliness of current European policy is an outgrowth of its lax policies four years ago. Nobody who cares for the interests of future immigrants should want the same thing.
Third, a purely punitive immigration policy of the sort envisioned by the Stephen Millers of the world will never work. In Central America, migrants are fleeing conditions that are worse than the worst this administration is capable of throwing at them. A wall the length of the border would not stop the pull-factor (most illegal immigrants arrive legally and overstay their visas). The only lasting answer is to address the push-factor.
That means a sustained effort by the United States to reduce crime, improve governance and facilitate economic growth in three small countries: El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. That’s not a minor task, but the U.S. worked with Colombia to achieve a similar outcome in the last two decades. There’s no reason it can’t work again.
The name for such a policy is nation building. It’s unpopular. It’s still better than the dismal choices supposedly humane states on both sides of the Atlantic now face when it comes to people desperate to reach their shores.
Bret Stephens is a columnist for The New York Times.