LONDON - France’s Emmanuel Macron is telling his centrist party that it must shed what he calls its “bourgeois” stance towards immigration and distinguish between deserving asylum-seekers fleeing war and economic migrants, saying it will otherwise drive voters into the arms of far-right populists.
His warning comes amid mounting evidence that the periphery of south-eastern Europe could soon be faced with a new surge of asylum-seekers, sparking fears that the continent could be on the brink of a new migration crisis, roiling European politics more and adding to the appeal of far-right populists.
In the past few weeks, there has been an abrupt increase in the numbers of refugees making the perilous sea crossing from Turkey to Greece, adding to overcrowding in squalid refugee camps on the Greek Aegean islands of Lesbos and Samos.
Talking Monday to lawmakers from his ruling party, La République en Marche, the French president said, “The question is whether we want to be a bourgeois party or not. The bourgeoisie doesn’t have a problem with [immigration]. They never come across it. The working classes live with it.” He added: “The left has not wanted to look at this problem for decades. The working classes have therefore moved to the far right.”
French officials worry that France could see a further surge in asylum seekers because of a tightening of admission and resettlement policies by neighboring Germany. More than a quarter of a million migrants received residency permits in France last year, up nearly 4% compared with 2017. A further 123,625 refugees made asylum claims, up 22.7% from 2017.
An opinion poll conducted for Le Monde newspaper found that 64% of respondents say they no longer feel at home in their country. Macron is said to be especially frustrated with an increase of asylum claims from Albanians and Georgians, economic migrants in search of a better life.
The French government is shaping measures to deter asylum seekers, including a 25% cut in welfare payments that are given to refugees and migrants while their claims and appeals are being processed.
Left wing critics rounded on Macron, accusing him of adopting an extreme right-wing position on immigration.
Marine Le Pen accused Macron of electioneering ahead of local elections next year, saying he was doing too little, too late. She noted last year saw a jump in legal arrivals from citizens from other EU countries as well. “A total of 360,000 people entered France last year legally,” she said. “If we carry on like that, two million will have entered legally by the end of his term of office, not to mention the countless illegal immigrants,” she added.
The political battle in France over immigration coincides with signs that Europe may be facing another uptick in arrivals from the Middle East, adding to the woeful conditions of asylum- seekers, mainly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, trapped on Greece's Aegean islands.
Aid workers say that life for the 24,000 refugees detained on Lesbos by the Greek authorities is unbearable and unsanitary and is turning into a “humanitarian disaster” with food shortages and a sharp rise in suicide attempts and self-harm. On Tuesday, Médecins Sans Frontières, the international medical humanitarian organization, called on Greece and European Union states to relocate the most vulnerable and sick refugees immediately.
“People's health is deteriorating due to poor access to health services and being trapped in overcrowded and inhumane living conditions,” MSF said in a tweet. Katryn Bubrakk, one of the organization’s aid workers, said, “I have seen the development of the situation for the last four years. And what’s really worrying is the status of the mental situation for people now.”
She added: “It’s a lot more severe now. People have lost hope, they can’t see how they are going to get away from here.” She said that due to insufficient resources many who need help are turned away.
In the past two months, more than 13,000 refugees have landed on Greek shores, many of them unaccompanied minors. That is a fraction of landings at the height of the migration crisis in 2016 when Greece was seeing 2,000 disembarkations a day from unsafe and rickety smugglers’ boats. But it is the first significant jump in numbers since the EU signed an accord with Turkey in which Recep Tayyip Erdoğan agreed to staunch the flood of asylum-seekers into Europe in return for $6.6 billion.
There is some suspicion among European diplomats that the spike now may be a warning to the EU from Ankara. With Turkey’s economic woes mounting, and some reluctance by some EU states to hand over the money amid Erdoğan’s crackdown on dissidents and critics, the Turkish president has repeatedly warned he will open the refugee floodgates again if the EU doesn’t fulfill its promise.
Erdoğan is urging European countries to back his plan to establish a larger ‘safe zone’ in northern Syria where war refugees could be kept. Turkey is hosting four million Syrians and Ankara fears a redoubled offensive in the province of Idlib, abutting the Turkish border, by forces loyal and allied to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will only increase the tens of thousands of Syrians heading to the border.