'Refugee' wave hints of looming storm

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 April, 2011, 12:00am


'I wonder whether in this situation it makes sense to remain within the European Union,' Italian Interior Minister Roberto Maroni said two weeks ago, in a crude attempt to blackmail other EU countries into taking more of Italy's illegal immigrants. But the time may come when Italy's northern neighbours will be quite happy to see Italy, and other Mediterranean members, leave the union.

The fuss has arisen because Italy, the closest EU country to Tunisia, was hit by a wave of Tunisian 'refugees' after the recent revolution there. They are not really fleeing persecution and repression; they are economic migrants taking advantage of the fact that the chaotic new regime, unlike the Ben Ali dictatorship, no longer patrols the beaches to stop them leaving for Italy.

This is profoundly unpopular in Italy and Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is certainly not going to defy that popular mood.

Most of the refugees from Tunisia would rather be in France anyway. So Berlusconi's government just made it easy for them to go to France.

Early this month, Italy began issuing six-month temporary residence certificates to the Tunisian refugees. Once they were Italian residents, however temporary, they were legally free to go anywhere else in the 'Schengen' group of countries, an area with no internal border controls that includes almost all of western and northern Europe, except Britain. Most of the Tunisians soon headed for France.

Which is why, last Saturday, the French authorities began stopping the trains that normally cross the border from Italy into France without any identity checks. The French message was clear: you can't dump your refugees on us, no matter what the treaty says.

Now fast-forward 30 years, and assume that the average global temperature is 2 degrees Celsius higher than it was in 1990 - a reasonable assumption if there's no drastic cut in global greenhouse gas emissions.

Italy, like all countries on the Mediterranean, is in the sub-tropics, which will have much less rainfall in a warmer world. Less rainfall and much higher summer temperatures mean that less food can be grown.

This is a scenario in which not thousands but millions of people will flee the drought-stricken countries of North Africa to try to get into Europe. But it's also a scenario in which millions of Italians, Spanish, Greeks and citizens of other EU members in the Mediterranean will take advantage of the Schengen rules on free movement to move somewhere cooler that still has enough food. Like France, for example.

Will France (and Germany and Poland and Sweden) let all these 'climate refugees' from the Mediterranean countries in? Not very likely, is it?

What happened to the Italian trains trying to cross into France last weekend is a dress-rehearsal for the future. Not an inevitable future, but an ugly and quite probable future. And similar things will happen along all the other borders where the sub-tropics meet the temperate zone.

Gwynne Dyer's latest book, Climate Wars, is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld