Egypt’s refugees could flee to Europe
THE REVERBERATIONS of Egypt’s political upheaval and violence should be of serious concern, discussion and scenario-planning to European Union politicians, planners and bureaucrats.
Fallout from this crisis could lead to refugees moving across the 26 European countries signed up to the Schengen agreement which have no borders or passport controls between them. The agreement guarantees the free movement of people between Schengen countries.
Tunisia’s uprising - the spur for North Africa’s Arab Spring revolts - had a brief but critically important impact on the Schengen agreement. It was sparked by street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself on fire in December 2010.
The uprising which followed, created serious tensions among some EU states in the Schengen agreement as about 5,000 Tunisians fled to the Italian island of Lampedusa, half-way between Sicily and the north Tunisian Mediterranean coast.
Italy argued at the time that this should not be Italy’s problem alone and it was a European issue which should be shared.
France feared that Francophone Tunisians, once granted refugee status in Italy, would head straight to France as part of the free movement of people in the Schengen area.
The problem of dealing with North African refugees seemed, for a while, to fundamentally undermine the commitment of two key Schengen area members to the principle of free movement of people. There was a serious, and politically popular, debate on reverting to some version of pre-Schengen border crossing system where individual countries would check identities at their borders.
This would have been a clear negation of the Schengen principle giving free movement across borders of signatory states.
If a mere 5,000 Tunisian refugees on Lampedusa created such an existential crisis for the Schengen agreement, what impact would a much larger number of Egyptian refugees cause, should they make the short crossing to Cyprus?
There has been little, if any, public discussion of possible scenarios, let alone serious crisis planning, whether politically, economically, administratively or militarily.
This is potentially a huge scale multi-dimensional problem.
Egypt’s 82.5 million population is separated from the Schengen area’s most eastern point of entry at Cyprus by 500 kilometres of Mediterranean Sea.
Any mass population movement fleeing Egypt’s violence - and in extremis civil war - will potentially be a game-changer at a time of serious and combined financial and economic crisis across Europe.
Austerity, deep financial cuts, widespread and vocal populist discontent about multiculturalism and immigration are affecting the eurozone and Cyprus and Greece in particular - the two Schengen members closest to the north Egyptian coast.
It is hard to say whether any naval crisis-planning exists to deal with such a sudden mass influx of Egyptian boat-people in the eastern Mediterranean.
However, the eastern Mediterranean had become a potential flashpoint even before the Syrian civil war and the Egyptian crisis of 2013. These pressures concerned competing claims over the new gas finds principally between Israel, Cyprus, Lebanon and Turkey, through the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
If such a mass influx of Egyptian refugees were to occur, it would be likely to stretch the already limited naval resources unless some form of coordinated naval action were to take place along the lines of the existing international cooperation against piracy along the Somali coast.
Egypt is descending into prolonged instability at best and civil war at worst. Both are likely to lead to increased migration through normal individual arrangements or mass exits.