With the good weather in the Mediterranean the numbers of refugees seeking to cross to Europe has dramatically increased. Last weekend an estimated 7000 men, women and children were rescued from the Sea off the coast of Libya. They were among the 100,000 refugees and migrants who have arrived illegally in Europe since the start of the year. That’s close to the entire population of West Belfast. The Irish Naval Service described the number of migrants being rescued as "biblical" in proportion.In the same period almost 2000 refugees have drowned. In one terrifying event an estimated 900 refugees drowned when a boat capsized. Many of those victims died because the traffickers locked refugees, including women and children, in the ship’s hold.
Since then hundreds more have drowned. Almost every day graphic and distressing images emerge of boat loads of refugees. They are fleeing wars and civil wars in Syria and Libya, Somalia and Nigeria and many of the other conflicts taking place in that region of the world. Like our ancestors fleeing the Great Hunger in Coffin Ships they are also fleeing famine and poverty in sub-saharan Africa.Too often help for the refugees on these overcrowded boats comes too late. Boats sink and refugees drown. The statistics of death and tragedy in the Mediterranean are distressing.
The most recent United Nations report states that:
· In one week in April 10,000 Migrants were rescued.
· 218,000 refugees are estimated to have crossed the Mediterranean in 2014
· 3,500 Migrants died attempting the crossing last year
In May Pope Francis appealed to the international community to prevent drownings in the Mediterranean. He described those who died taking the perilous journey as: “Men and women like us who seek a better life. Hungry, persecuted, injured, exploited, victims of wars. They were looking for happiness".Of the many conflicts in that part of the world the most disastrous at this time is in Syria. It is an inconceivable human tragedy. As many as 300,000 people have been killed in a war that is now in its fifth year. The number of refugees is unprecedented. About 3 million Syrians have fled their country, and an additional 6.5 million are internally displaced.
International organizations do what they can, but they have limited resources and conditions in the conflict areas are dangerous. Conditions are appalling. Children are especially vulnerable.Last year the number of asylum applicants to EU nations rose by 44 percent with the total reaching six hundred and twenty six thousand. Eurostat, the EU agency responsible for statistics, has reported that one hundred and ninety one thousand more people applied for asylum in European countries in 2014 than in the previous year.
The number of Syrian asylum applicants rose to one over hundred thousand, more than twice the previous year. Germany, Italy, Hungary, Sweden and France have all reported significant increases in asylum requests.In May the Foreign Ministers of the EU met and produced a ten point plan. EU leaders met several days later and approved this plan. Since then it has begun to fall apart under the strains of its own inadequacy.
The EU leaders proposed that the EU states would resettle 5,000 immigrants. When set against the numbers trying to get into Europe this is a derisory figure. They also came up with the idea of offering migrants return travel packages. Is it reasonable to expect that refugees would accept a travel scheme that sends them back to the war, to poverty or famine they are trying to escape from?
They then announced a quota scheme for EU member states. The proposal was that numbers of refugees would be allocated to each state based on economic and social factors. The British Tory government and the French and Spanish governments have now opposed the quota system.So too have the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Slovakia. In remarks three weeks President Hollande insisted that all purely economic migrants would be deported. He warned that: “People who come because they think that Europe is a prosperous continent, even when they are not hired by companies ... must be escorted back.”
Unless effective and compassionate immigration rules are introduced, and substantial aid is provided to the home nations, asylum seekers will increasingly be forced to turn to the human traffickers. They will also be forced to remain in Libya which is in a state of chaos.Recently, the EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, addressed the UN Security Council seeking support for military action against the people traffickers. It cannot progress without the support of Libya. However, with two rival governments in that country there is no evidence that this agreement is imminent.
Amnesty International has warned that military action could leave migrants trapped in Libya in desperate conditions. A recent Amnesty report entitled "Libya is full of cruelty" has given graphic accounts of the plight of refugees in Libya where abduction, and torture and rape are widespread.
If the EU organises military action against the traffickers but leaves refugees trapped in Libya how will that ease the humanitarian crisis?
The 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol are there to help and protect refugees. According to their provisions, refugees deserve, as a minimum, the same standards of treatment enjoyed by other foreign nationals in a given country and, in many cases, the same treatment as nationals. Nor should a refugee be returned to a country where he or she faces serious threats to his or her life or freedom.This must be a fundamental right accorded to those who might be stopped entering the EU. But clearly much more is needed.
The colonial record and the more recent policies of some European countries toward north Africa and the Middle East have contributed enormously to the difficulties in this region.
Tackling the issue of migrant refugees means taking a stand against those from either the extreme right or left, be they fundamentalists, bigots, racists or homophobes, who seek to impose by violence and intimidation their values on others.The European Union needs to do more to help the economic migrants and the political refugees. It needs to pro-actively participate in initiatives to end the conflicts in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere in the region.
It especially means Europe pushing harder for a resolution of the Palestinian and Israeli conflict. For many this conflict lies at the heart of much of what is happening in that region today.