Huge refugee influx poses great moral challenge to Europe

A total of 2,24,000 migrants and refugees have reached Europe in the first seven months of 2015.


Shreerupa Mitra-Jha | August 25, 2015 | Geneva

Europe is in the throes of one of the worst humanitarian crises. But the 28-nation powerful bloc has managed only a faltering and blinkered response that has already cost far too many lives. According to the International Organisation of Migration (IOM) statistics, approximately 97,000 people arrived on the shores of Italy and another 90,500 in Greece escaping war and conflict in their countries. A total of 2,24,000 migrants and refugees have reached Europe in the first seven months of 2015.

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The sea route is the only open border left through which Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Eritreans, and Somalis among others can escape in search for a better life. The central Mediterranean route – a dangerous pathway connecting North Africa and Middle East with the south of Italy and Greece – has turned into a “watery grave”. Some 2,100 people have already drowned in the Mediterranean trying to make it to the continent, and about 1,88,000 have been rescued in the same waters this year. Newspapers are flush with stories of migrants and refugees dying of exertion, hunger, thirst or simply being locked in the lower decks of a sinking vessel.

On August 5, the Italian coast guard received a distress call from a trawler in difficulty approximately 16 miles north of Libya in the Channel of Sicily. When the Irish vessel, Le Niamh arrived, refugees rushed to the side of the boat closest to the rescue vessel. As a result, the boat capsized with people on the upper decks being thrown overboard. A harrowing account by a survivor revealed that traffickers had blocked the way of escape for people in the lower decks condemning them to die. Of the approximately 700 people on board, 367 were rescued and 25 were killed.

Unfortunately, this is not an exceptional instance but a typical case in these desperate boat peoples’ narrative of a struggle for survival.
Two days before this incident, 14 refugees had died of heat exhaustion and thirst when the engine of their boat got overheated and all the drinking water had to be used to keep it cool.

READ: "86% refugees are living in developing countries: Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR"

“It is unacceptable that in the 21st century people fleeing from conflicts, persecutions, misery, and land degradation must endure such terrible experiences in their home countries, not to mention en route, and then die on Europe’s doorstep,” said IOM director-general William Lacy Swing.

Internal displacement and fleeing from war-torn countries that we are witnessing today are the most significant movement of people since the end of World War II.

Greece, for instance, has seen a 750 percent increase of refugees and migrants over 2014. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that some 1,24,000 people have arrived in Greece by sea by the end of July, mainly in the islands of Lesvos, Chios, Kos, Samos and Leros. In July alone 50,000 people arrived. Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras appealed to the EU and said, “Greece is a country in economic crisis, and it faces a major humanitarian crisis within a crisis.”

While Syrians make up 63 percent of all arrivals since the beginning of the year, 20 percent are Afghans and four percent are Iraqis.
“This humanitarian emergency is happening in Europe, and requires an urgent Greek and European response,” Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s director of the Bureau for Europe, said in a statement following a visit to Greece last week (see interview in following pages).

European response

While some countries in Europe like Italy, Greece and Turkey have taken the disproportionate burden of the refugee influx due to the fact of geography, other countries like Germany and Sweden have taken a sizeable amount of asylum seekers as compared to other countries in the EU like the UK. Since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, Germany has taken 1,00,000 refugees. Last year, Sweden gave 30,650 positive decisions for asylum seekers, France gave 14,815, Germany had 40,560 asylum seekers, 20,580 in Italy and 15,410 in Switzerland. But the UK had only 10,050 positive decisions last year.

When compared to Europe, the poorer neighbouring countries of Syria have pitched in much more for helping with the crisis. The Guardian reports, “Turkey – whose GDP per capita is about four times less than that of Britain – hosts nearly 1.6 million refugees, more than any other country. Lebanon, which has a population of less than 4.5 million, has up to 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Countries with far fewer resources than Britain are taking in many more refugees.”

Turkey today is the largest refugee hosting country in the world.

Moreover, the majority of refugees do not come to Europe; UNHCR statistics point out that 86 percent of all refugees are in developing countries.

In June, the EU assumed an arm-twisting and frantic posture to the crisis. It launched the EU naval operation against human smugglers and traffickers in the Mediterranean called ‘EUNAVFOR Med’. “Its mission is to identify, capture and dispose of vessels and enabling asset used or suspected of being used by migrant smugglers or traffickers,” said a press statement.

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said: “EU has never taken the issue of migration as seriously as we are doing now. With this operation, we are targeting the business model of those who benefit from the misery of migrants. But it’s only a part of a broader strategy including the cooperation with our partners in Africa, particularly in the Sahel region, and the work with the International Organisation for Migration and the UNHCR.” She added, “We are determined to contribute to save lives.” The EU called this its “comprehensive approach to migration”.

The argument is deeply flawed on many counts apart from being counter-intuitive to refugee law and humanitarian law. Among other problems with this line of reasoning, it is unclear how depriving people of possibly their only shot at escaping brutal violence in their homelands contributes to “saving lives”. Secondly, destroying dinghy boats and unseaworthy vessels that anyway don’t amount to much doesn’t make much of a dent in the business model of traffickers. As long as there are people desperate enough to undertake that perilous journey, these crossings will continue even if it means dying in the seas.

A proposal by Brussels for a more equitable system of distributing refugees in the form of quotas across the 28 countries was scrapped in June by national leaders of Europe. In May the European Commission in Brussels had come up with mandatory quotas for migrant sharing. It is now agreed that only 40,000 refugees – 24,000 from Italy and 16,000 from Greece – will be shared by the EU but only on a voluntary basis. This was to be done in July but stretched to October. Vincent Cochetel says he is not very optimistic about it and added that it is “far too little and far too late”. Britain has already said that it will not be a party to this arrangement.

An equally unproductive stance as destroying boats of migrants was taken by Hungary when in June its foreign minister announced that the government had decided to build a 13-foot high, 175-km long steel barrier complete with barbs to prevent migrants from coming in. The fence is scheduled to be completed this month and would cost $106 million and 9,000 soldiers to build it. And Hungary is often the transit country for refugees making their way to more affluent lands like Austria and Germany.

Around 3,000 refugees and migrants in Calais on the northern coast of France are in appalling living and reception conditions in makeshift sites. At least 10 people have already died in June alone attempting to cross the Channel. The UN has repeatedly called for an “urgent, sustainable and comprehensive response” to the French and the UK authorities. Recently, London rejected 10 applications forwarded by the French for asylum seekers with ties to the country.

The UNHCR said in a statement on August 7 that the situation in Calais is an indication of a much larger refugee crisis unfolding in the Mediterranean. “While various European governments along the way fail in their responsibility to offer effective protection and adequate reception to these new arrivals, the situation in Calais is to a large extent the result of a partial and uncoordinated implementation of the Common European Asylum System by EU countries.”

Along with appalling living conditions, the refugees face huge backlash of rising xenophobia in Europe. A German television presenter faced rabid remarks on social media when she took a public stand against racist attacks on refugees. Far-right protestors in Germany also attacked Red Cross workers setting up a tent for Syrian refugees.

The Daily Mail of the UK recently posed the rather bizarre question to its readers: “We kept out Hitler. Why can’t our feeble leaders stop a few thousand exhausted migrants?” while UK prime minister David Cameron referred to the “swarm” of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from north Africa. Considering that the UK has hardly taken in any asylum seekers crossing the Mediterranean and has barely seen a five percent increase in asylum applicants over 2014, it is apparent that the toxic issue of immigration has become an electoral bunny rather than having any resonance with facts and figures.

The German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung  wrote in an editorial: “Winter is coming and the people won’t be able to be kept in tents any more ... not only that but hundreds of thousands more will join them in the next few years and they’ll all need a humane place to live in the long term.”

“Greece and Europe need to lead the response to this crisis, which can be resolved only through more solidarity within and outside the EU and increased alternative means to reach Europe for refugees fleeing from violence,” Cochetel said.

The UNHCR said that the refugee crisis in Europe is a crisis not because of the number of refugees coming in, which is “manageable”, but because of Europe’s failure to respond to it in a systematic and open way.

Cochetel speaks of an “unbearable” level of suffering in these refugee sites. The veteran UNHCR official said that in his 30 years of humanitarian work experience having worked in Africa and Asia, “I have never seen a situation like that. This is the European Union and this is totally shameful.”

Europe can do much better.

(The article appears in the August 16-31, 2015 issue)




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