This time of year Mediterranean beaches are the destinations of choice for many European holidaymakers; it’s also the beginning of the busiest time of year for the people smugglers based in Libya and elsewhere along the North African coast. July to October is their peak season — during this time in 2016 around 103,000 refugees were crammed into unsafe boats, often in the dead of night, and cast off into the Mediterranean Sea.
Some don’t survive the crossing. Whilst the number of migrants arriving at Europe’s back door may have decreased — from 205,858 in the first five months of 2016, down to 71,029 for the same period this year, the number of dead has dramatically increased, reaching a staggering 1,650. The mortality rate has increased from 1.2% to 2.3%. In 2015, when Europe’s response was properly coordinated, and when Germany opened its doors to over a million refugees, the death rate was 0.37%.
Europe’s politicians seem indifferent to the growing number of fatalities, and with a reported 2.5 million people (according to a leaked German government document) waiting in countries around the Mediterranean, the death count is set to rise dramatically.
The German report states that one million people are holed up in Libya, which, thanks to western ‘intervention’ is now a lawless state without any credible government where refugees are imprisoned, sold as slaves and trafficked into prostitution. Another million are in Egypt, almost half a million are waiting in Algeria, there are 160,000 or so in Tunisia and hundreds of thousands sit patiently in transit countries such as Jordon where there are estimated to be 720,00.
This is in addition to the 3.3 million refugees in Turkey, who have been denied access to Europe by the European Union’s (EU) ‘One in One out’ Syrian migrant deal struck in 2016. A crude financial arrangement of convenience made with Turkish President Recep Erdogan – a quasi-dictator, in which Turkey accepted the return of irregular migrants arriving in Greece in exchange for six billion euros in financial aid, and the loosening of visa restrictions for Turks. The result: tens of thousands of refugees stranded in Greece, living in intolerable and insecure conditions.
It was bribery by any other name; the aim was to push the refugee issue out of sight, make them someone else's problem. This remains the EU’s inadequate, irresponsible approach.
It’s easy to see the statistics and forget that the numbers refer to people, human beings trying to escape some form of danger or violent conflict: Syrian Mother, “there was a rocket launching pad right behind my house. For the children, this was the main reason that we left. They became sick, they would’t let me go... At night they’re asleep, they’d wake up crying. And the same thing happened to me. And my husband was not with us.” Others are fleeing persecution: Sudanese Mother, “There is racism in Sudan, between Muslims and Christians. The soldiers or the policemen come and they take half of what I earned, and they say: ‘that is for us’. But they don’t behave like this with everyone, only with Christians from Eritrea. If you try to say no, they will either kill or jail you.”
Ignoring root causes
Two main routes into Europe are used by refugees: the Aegean route via Turkey, Greece and the Balkans which is now virtually closed off, and the Mediterranean crossing from North Africa which is fraught with dangers.
Having travelled for months across unforgiving terrain, suffered abuse and exploitation en route, refugees arriving in Europe all too often find themselves in an unwelcoming, hostile environment, one in which the debilitating politics of fear, intolerance and division has increasingly influenced decisions on immigration generally and an approach to those seeking refuge.
Europe has sought to reduce the numbers making the journey by various short-term measures, none of which deal with the root causes of migration, and indeed the numbers have dropped — not because less people are leaving their troubled homelands, but because they are going somewhere else, or being held, imprisoned, in transit. The problem is not being resolved because the underlying causes have not been faced, those in need are simply being pushed elsewhere: it is a moral disgrace and a new approach is urgently needed.
To Europe’s utter shame there has been no collective response to what is euphemistically called the ‘refugee crisis’, but is actually a worldwide humanitarian issue partly caused by the aggressive foreign policies of America and her allies.
It’s not just war that people are fleeing; it’s a range of issues including human rights abuses and persecution by brutal regimes – Ethiopia, a key ally of the West for example, and Eritrea where people are fleeing military conscription and poverty. The driving impulses that make people leave home are fear and hope; fear of death and terrorist threats – in Nigeria for example where the largest numbers making it to Europe currently come from, fear of torture and violence, and the hope of a better life somewhere else; a peaceful life in a country where the rule of law is observed and human rights are respected.
Refugees make up a mere 0.4% of the total population of the EU (approximately 510 million), and on a global scale refugees represent only around 8% of all migrants, and roughly 85% of all refugees live in developing countries. There is no question that Europe could and should do more, could offer long-term support to more in need.
The sane suggestion of establishing equitable resettlement quotas for all EU states has been completely shunned by selfish, irresponsible national governments concerned not with meeting the fundamental needs of refugees, but by domestic politics. Britain has been at the forefront of isolationism and indifference, with the Conservative government under David Cameron’s leadership agreeing in 2015 to take a paltry 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years.
Manipulative, cowardly European politicians hide behind the outdated, unworkable Dublin Agreement, which states that refugees must be processed in the first country they set foot in and can be returned there if they dare to venture beyond its borders. This completely unfair scheme has placed colossal pressure on Italy and Greece – countries that most refugees simply wish to pass though en route to other European countries. In fact many refugees, according to a study by Warwick University, don’t even want to go to Europe. The report challenges the idea that, ‘destination Europe’, is the dream goal of millions, claiming it is traffickers who often ‘decide’ who goes where: Europe is the most expensive option and therefore the most profitable for the smugglers.
The in-depth report recommends that Europe’s refugee policy, which has focused on deterring people from seeking refuge must be changed to one that is “grounded in an appreciation of — and responsiveness to — the journeys and experiences, as well as the understandings, expectations, concerns and demands of people on the move.” It makes clear that the current approach, which connects aid payments to countries such as Ethiopia, Lebanon, Jordan, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and Senegal, to preventing migration, should be replaced with proper “interventions that address the diverse drivers of unauthorized movement”.
Deterrents do not work mainly because the situations people are escaping from are a great deal worse than anything that might happen to them when they arrive in a destination country.
The study makes the common-sense suggestion that opening “sufficient safe and legal routes to the EU for people who otherwise have to resort to precarious journeys,” should be a priority, together with investing in decent “reception facilities and improved access to key services,” such as health care and housing. In addition long-term national and regional resettlement programmes are needed, and more humanitarian aid provided to poor countries close to conflict zones that are coping with the majority of the world’s refugees, including Lebanon, Jordan, Ethiopia and Kenya.
Like the other major issues facing humanity — the environmental catastrophe, nuclear disarmament and ending armed conflict, economic injustice and terrorism — the displacement of people (currently numbering 65 million globally), of which refugees form a small part, is a worldwide problem and requires an international humane and coordinated response. Unified policies based on the recognition of collective responsibility and group need, not this fragmented nationalistic approach which is intensifying human suffering and does nothing to deal with the underlying causes.