Rising tide of immigration to Europe pushing continent's politics to the right, experts say

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni stands at a podium.
Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in Rome on Nov. 10. (Guglielmo Mangiapane/Reuters)

BARCELONA — Barely a month old, the hard-right, anti-immigrant government of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni ran afoul of France in late October for its refusal to provide safe harbor to a rescue ship carrying 234 migrants pulled from the Mediterranean Sea.

After 16 days of the ship’s ignored distress calls to the Italian government asking to dock, France allowed the Ocean Viking safe harbor in Toulon on Nov. 11. According to the French interior minister, Gerald Darmanin, the vessel was Italy’s responsibility since it had been in Italian search and rescue waters, and ignoring the pleas “lacked humanity,” was “a nasty gesture” and was “incomprehensible.”

In a statement, Meloni’s interior minister, Matteo Piantedosi, fired back that “Italy has taken in 90,000 [migrants] just this year” and that it was the actions of France, which according to French broadcaster France 24 had never before received a migrant-filled rescue ship, that were “totally incomprehensible.” France, which in August took in 38 of the migrants that arrived in Italy this year, according to the European Commission, had pledged to accept 3,500 more later in 2022. But, said Darmanin, Italy’s behavior had forced France to retract that offer.

Such clashes between countries are becoming more common across Europe, where an increase in “irregular” migrants — as those who’ve entered illegally are called here — is pushing European politics in a rightward direction.

Two migrants disembark a ship called the Ocean Viking.
Migrants leave the Ocean Viking in Toulon, France, on Nov. 11 after being rescued by a humanitarian organization. (Vincenzo Circosta/AFP via Getty Images)

“There’s a relationship between the demographic change through immigration and the rise of the populist right in Western Europe,” Eric Kaufmann, author of “Whiteshift” and professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London, told Yahoo News. “The number of Europeans saying immigration is a top issue really rises along with rising migration numbers, and then the populist right rises along with that.”

Of late, the numbers of migrants, both legal and illegal, crossing into Europe are soaring.

This week Frontex, as the European border control and coast guard agency is called, released a new report showing that the number of illegal entries into Europe has risen by 77% since last year and is the highest since 2016.

Migrants have been illegally entering not only from across the Mediterranean but via land from non-EU Balkan countries, and tens of thousands have entered the United Kingdom by crossing the English Channel. And from Britain to Germany, Spain to Greece, countries are trying to figure out how to secure the continent, which has over 42,000 miles of coastline and 30 borders with non-EU countries, making external border security challenging.

According to Frontex, over 132,000 “detections” of entries to Mediterranean countries via sea were made from January to September of this year. However, an increasingly popular route for those trying to enter Europe illegally — whether to seek asylum or better economic opportunities — is to enter from non-EU countries such as Serbia and Albania, toward Hungary and from there to Austria and Germany. Over the past year, Frontex has made over 128,000 detections of illegal border entries of migrants, largely from Burundi, Afghanistan and Iraq, from that corner of southeastern Europe. According to the Associated Press, by September of this year state police had registered over 57,000 unauthorized entries into Germany, where the government in October met with EU officials to discuss how to seal borders, crack down on smuggling and speed up deportations.

“Annually, 2 to 3 million nationals from non-EU countries come to the EU legally, in contrast to 125,000 to 200,000 irregular arrivals,” EU Commission spokesperson for home affairs Anitta Hipper told Yahoo News. But, she added, “irregular migration is still a challenge.”

What’s more, the number of irregular migrants popping up in England is suddenly spiking even higher. This week the British department of defense announced that more than 40,000 people had crossed the English Channel from France and illegally entered England so far in 2022, while four years ago the number was a mere 299. On Wednesday the U.K. government also announced it is paying $75 million to France to bolster border security along the channel. Spain, meanwhile, is paying millions to Morocco to increase its security and prevent would-be migrants from crossing the Mediterranean to Spain. The EU has also spent billions on programs from economic development to job training in Africa to try to address the root causes behind illegal migration.

A group of people thought to be migrants board a bus.
People thought to be migrants board a bus in a U.K. Border Force compound in Dover on Nov. 14 following a number of small-boat incidents in the English Channel. (Gareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty Images)

“There’s a concern that EU development funding [in Africa] is increasingly being used to finance projects aiming to curb migration towards Europe, rather than fulfilling their stated purpose, namely development in these countries — reducing poverty and inequality and improving livelihoods,” Stephanie Pope, EU migration policy adviser of human rights organization Oxfam International, told Yahoo News. “And we consider this to be a very dangerous development.”

To Rainer Münz, a senior research associate at the Wilfred Martens Centre for European Studies who specializes in migration, Europe’s media and policymakers are looking at the wrong issues — the recent attention given to the Ocean Viking saga being a case in point. “When 0.2% of migrants to Europe are dominating the headlines for weeks, it clearly shows that people are not looking at what’s going on.”

The biggest issue for him is that Europe’s population is declining, with the death rate exceeding the birth rate since 2015 — and the EU needs to bring in more skilled migrants “to stabilize the workforce.” But that’s not happening, he said. Legal immigrants “are not selected according to the talent and skills,” he said. “Politically, that’s not feasible, when 60 or 70% of your immigration is humanitarian, being either marriage or family reunion or asylum.”

And this year, with Europe taking in 5 million Ukrainians, who can legally live and work in the EU, the figure of humanitarian-motivated immigration in Europe is far higher, he added. “When 90% of your immigration is humanitarian, it’s not easy to convince the general public that we need to recruit another million people,” Münz said. “But if the aim is to bring more talented people here, you would have to reduce the inflow of people who do not fit European labor market needs. You would have to reduce the humanitarian flow in order to open up capacity for skilled worker admissions.”

Migrants sit and stand on board the Ocean Viking prior to disembarking.
Migrants on board the Ocean Viking prior to disembarking in Toulon. (Vincenzo Circosta/AFP via Getty Images)

Such talk is anathema to Pope. “Europe is a very, very wealthy region. If we look at it globally, and particularly the EU, by the end of 2021, for example, less than 10% of the world’s refugees were living in the EU. So if we look at it globally, [taking in more refugees] is very much something that the EU could manage effectively and humanely.”

However, Anna Knoll, head of migration and mobility at the European Centre for Development Policy Management, is concerned that humanitarian efforts are giving life to right-wing movements across the continent.

“You see countries like Sweden or Italy flipping more to the right side of the political spectrum,” Knoll told Yahoo News. “I think states are realizing they cannot afford having more refugees situated there or more irregular migrants coming in, because it does potentially push the voters more to the right. Obviously we try to balance this — we have principles, we have values and we are also a sanctuary for refugees. But we cannot allow everyone in.”

Knoll is especially worried about this winter, when more Ukrainian refugees are expected to come to Europe since Russia keeps attacking electrical and heating infrastructure. “If everything comes together — more migrants, super-high energy prices, inflation hitting the roof — at some point I wonder how much the system can take before people say, ‘No, we don’t want this.’”

In the meantime, France has already rejected the applications of 123 of the asylum seekers aboard the Ocean Viking, and on Friday, the Le Figaro newspaper reported that 26 of the minors on board had gone missing.

View of the Ocean Viking.
The Ocean Viking, seen here during a stopover in Marseille, France, rescued more than 200 migrants off the coast of Libya. (Denis Thaust/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)