The 71 migrants thought to be Syrians – among them four children – found suffocated to death in a truck in Austria have added to the terrible toll of more than 2,400 people the UN says have drowned in the Mediterranean so far this year trying to get to the EU.
Events around Europe the day the bodies in the lorry were discovered serve to highlight both the sluggish and mean-spirited reaction in Europe to the thousands of people fleeing conflict and repression in the Middle East and Africa.
German Chancellor Merkel and EU Foreign Policy Chief Mogherini were holding a summit in Vienna with leaders from Austria, Greece, Italy and the Western Balkans when news of the gruesome discovery came through.
The meeting was already intended largely to discuss how to cope with the numbers of migrants passing through the region on their way to the EU. And while the expressions of shock from the leaders present were no doubt sincere, the fact the meeting was being held in late August when the flow of migrants began several months ago speaks volumes for the lack of urgency with which EU leaders have addressed the migration crisis.
It’s two months since they agreed in principle – with the exception of the UK, Hungary and Denmark – to share the burden of resettling asylum seekers. But as the numbers of migrants – and the number of deaths – has continued to climb, governments have continued to haggle over the details.
To her credit, Angela Merkel does now seem to have got the message. She has recently condemned as “shameful” an attack on a refugee centre in her own country and reacted to news of the latest deaths by saying “this reminds us that we in Europe need to tackle the problem quickly and find solutions in the spirit of solidarity”.
But will other European leaders follow suit?
In the UK, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, has faced criticism for using inflammatory language talking of “a swarm of people” trying to reach the UK and his Foreign Secretary, Phillip Hammond, said migrants were “marauding” around the continent.
This is despite the fact the numbers trying to get to Britain are far lower than those trying to get to Germany – for every one Syrian applying for asylum in the UK, Germany receives 27 applications.
But the political and media climate in several countries shows it is not just governments that are falling short.
The same day the 71 bodies were discovered, the UK media was full of negative headlines criticising the government for failing to control immigration.
In his first term, responding to pressure from the press and opinion polls showing increasing public concern over immigration, Cameron promised to cut net immigration to under 100,000 a year. But the latest figures show his government is still a long way from that target. Net immigration has reached 330,000 and one in eight people now living in Britain was born outside the country.
Many journalists tend to conflate asylum-seekers and other migrants and the tone and emphasis of much of the coverage of migration this summer, especially since the disruption to cross channel links caused by migrants at Calais trying to get to Britain, has been – to put it politely – lacking in empathy.
In many reports you could be forgiven for forgetting many of these migrants are fellow human beings who have risked their lives to escape Syria, Iraq, Eritrea or Sudan and make their way to Europe to seek sanctuary.
Britain isn’t the only country where the politicians and journalists are neglecting the better angels of their nature.
Hungary, which is on the main migrant land route, has built a – largely ineffectual – fence to keep asylum seekers out. Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, didn’t even bother to go the Vienna meeting and his party responded to the discovery of the bodies in the truck, which was registered in Hungary, by laying the blame on the EU.
Unless Europe finds the political will and humanity to respond urgently and on the necessary scale to the flow of migrants, more people are going to end up dying.
But with the penny having seemingly dropped with Chancellor Merkel, Berlin appears to have decided it now has to act.
Germany is after all the preferred destination of most of the migrants with the country reportedly expecting up to 800,000 this year alone.
The country has also experienced mass influxes before in living memory.
In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and the Nazis’ depredations in Eastern Europe, millions of ethnic Germans fled or were expelled from the region and were given refuge in their ancestral homeland. So, perhaps Germans are better able to feel sympathy for those fleeing conflict and oppression today.
Senior EU officials are also expressing optimism member states’ resistance to agreeing to accept quotas of asylum seekers is weakening as the death toll mounts.
We will see if the combination of German leadership and tragic news will galvanise other EU leaders and their citizens to respond to the needs of the moment with greater generosity and urgency.
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