Seldom is the ongoing migration debate looked upon through the eyes of the prospective economic migrant himself. He usually does not come from the very destitute layers of society, where the urge for immediate survival will not allow any longer term planning and where, anyhow, the significant financial resources necessary to undertake the perilous journey may not be found. He is generally young, enterprising and feeling a bottled-up future. All of these features, by the way, make of him a good asset for his prospective country.
However, his decision is based on a rational utility function which also embodies -besides the financial cost and the pain and risks of the voyage- the likelihood of not being rejected by his prospective country or countries and being returned to his home base. Therefore, he carefully and constantly monitors the policies and actual behaviors of recipient countries.
In the Italian case such policies have varied from one of ‘benign neglect’ (Renzi government) to one combining some control of NGO activities with key (financial ?) arrangements with tribal leaders in southern Libya (Gentiloni-Minniti) to one prescribing the withdrawal of Italian vessels from waters near Libya and nuisances to NGO vessels so as to make the latter unlikely to seek Italian ports (Salvini). These last two policies have proven, and are proving, to be effective but they are not structurally sustainable, for a variety of reasons including instability of the Libyan context and political rejection of an approach promoting deterrence by drowning and/or diversion to other European countries.
We contend that a third line of action would have been feasible in order to stem the flow of economic migrants: based on the rational utility function mentioned above, the variable that should be acted upon is the likelihood of repatriation. Indeed, a very high probability of the latter would constitute, if sustained over time, a powerful disincentive in the decision to leave the home country. Now, we are aware of the objections raised to a policy of repatriation. However, these should be analyzed in some detail.
Although we will revert later to the issue of cost, it should be noted that a considerable share of the expense is due to the inordinate amount of manpower (police officers and the like) involved in the operation and accompanying each person to be repatriated. The norms and regulations governing such operations should be reviewed, also in light of other international standards.
The main objection raised against the repatriation approach is the inexistence of the appropriate agreements with most of the originating countries and/or their unwillingness to receive the returnees. In fact, such bilateral agreements are already in force with most North African countries and with Nigeria. Concerning other subsaharan countries -and excluding those, such as Eritrea, whose citizens are in principle eligible for asylum-, they are all large beneficiaries of the generous grant aid provided for by the EU-Africa convention (endowed with 34,3 billion €, of which 4,32 from Italy. And without counting the new Africa Fund, 1,8 billion, some of which is additional).The latter Convention stipulates in its art. 13: « each of the ACP States shall accept the return of and readmission of any of its nationals who are illegally present on the territory of a Member State of the European Union, at that Member State’s request and without further formalities ». Therefore, the EU would be entitled, in case the originating country refused admittance, to review and eventually discontinue its aid programme. We are referring here to its existing programme, not necessarily to the additional funds being debated at present and, supposedly, meant to foster more employment, thus stemming the migration outflow (this latter concept being deceitful, both for its time frame as well as for the financial mass theoretically required). One can rest assured that no African country would run the risk of seeing its finances amputated of the European grant aid programme, of which they have been benefiting, in some cases, for the past forty or fifty years. A few examples for the current five-year period: Senegal 347 M€, Ghana 323, Nigeria 512. These are grant funds, on top of which come the large grants from the regional fund and loans from the EIB. It is to be noted that this ‘carrot and stick’ policy could only be implemented through European agreements with emitting countries rather than through bilateral agreements.
If we now look at the domestic political impact, it is quite clear that the migration issue should be manageable in its size, in particular in light of the decreasing figures of recent years. However, its psychosocial impact -not of a single event, but of the continuing flows of aliens- has had, and is having, throughout Europe, a persistent effect on electoral bodies already weakened by the long economic crisis and its outcome in terms of increasing inequalities, especially affecting the disenchanted middle class. Years ago this dire picture was already clear to some analysts, but the traditional establishments in most European countries failed to act upon an issue of which they did not perceive the disruptive power.
It is clear that the cost of the « repatriation approach » highlighted above -and, obviously, not applicable to bona fide refugees- should be entirely borne by the European Union. As a matter of fact, all the costs of the migration issue should be borne by the EU. This would be the price to pay - a relatively small price - to the border countries, in exchange for making most of the Dublin reform unnecessary and, indeed, for abating the major crisis of the European project. It is also an approach that safeguards the principle of sea rescues and that makes agreements with Libyan chieftains less vital.
The well-known demographic imbalances of most European countries - and certainly of Italy- will, in any case, require an intake of migrants. If a consistent repatriation approach were to be successful, it would then be possible to revive the official, and civilised, channels that, in the Italian case, are already provided for by the existing Bossi-Fini law, which, however, should be amended in some of its aspects. This would go far beyond the current private experiments of « humanitarian channels » as the law’s annual quotas have now for many years been hijacked by the need to regularise migrants illegally living in the country. As for the latter, whose number is estimated at several hundred thousands, it will be inevitable, at some stage, to proceed with a mass regularisation, the repatriation approach highlighted above being conceivable only for new arrivals.