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Court ruling has ripple effect for Europe’s migrant crisis

A migrant is rescued by Italian Navy personnel

A migrant is rescued by Italian Navy personnel with a helicopter, at sea, in the Strait of Sicily on Aug. 12, 2015. Credit: EPA

I remember waking up as a child and looking out my bedroom window in a small city on the Apulian coast of southern Italy. A flat blue table shining half a mile away, the cries of seagulls and a warm salty air announced a great day at the beach.

That kind of weather on the southern shores of the Mediterranean used to be nothing but a good omen. It is not quite so anymore: favorable weather conditions push migrants waiting on the coasts of North Africa to embark for Europe on a journey of hope. Too often the journey ends in tragedy. So far this year, the United Nations reports, more than 2,500 migrants have died trying to cross what the Romans called Mare Nostrum, “Our Sea,” including more than 700 this month alone.

It is not surprising that the stretch of water separating Africa and Europe now dubbed “Mare Monstrum,” the monstrous sea swallowing human lives at a fast pace. Two recent developments give rise to the hope that Europe is finally addressing the migrant crisis, which has been growing for years.

The latest flare-up has its roots in March when, after years of political impasse, European Union leaders shut down the Western Balkans route from the Middle East to rich northern Europe, only after a controversial agreement with Turkey, whose government is accused of violating human rights.

Once again the Strait of Sicily came under the spotlight as the main gateway for migrants to Europe. The sculptor Mimmo Paladino’s monument on the island of Lampedusa, dedicated to the migrants who died at sea, is another reminder of their sad destiny.

The entry point is not just a geographic detail: it has revived across the Old Continent the debate on the differences between refugees and economic migrants.

In theory the distinction is substantial: while refugees are granted protection under international law, economic migrants are simply considered illegal immigrants and deported.

The disparity lies in the (theoretical) ability to make a choice. A person fleeing a war-torn country has no alternative but to escape to save his life, while a person seeking better economic conditions supposedly can choose to stay home.

Last week a ruling by an Italian judge questioned the very basics of this categorization. A court in Milan granted refugee status to a 24-year-old Gambian, citing the “objective economic difficulties, widespread poverty and limited access of most of the population to the most basic human rights” in his native country.

That decision was based on Article 25 of the UN’s Universal Human Rights Declaration, stating that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family.”

Anti-immigrant parties rose up against the court ruling, and the High Council for the Judiciary is looking into the case to verify its compatibility with Italian laws.

At the same time, EU leaders agreed in Strasbourg to push forward a partnership framework to address the root causes of the migration crisis. The plan is to link programs of cooperation and economic support in African countries to investment in infrastructure and better border control — an ambitious project, but also a step toward the right direction.

Europe is finally dealing with the two issues at the root of the immigration crisis: inequality and sustainable foreign policy. In a time when talk of building walls and isolationism echo on both sides of the Atlantic, this is no small thing.

Roberto Capocelli is an intern with Newsday Opinion.