Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Posts tagged ‘asylum seekers’

Europe’s migrants: urgency and empathy needed

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.

Calais migrant crisis – something must be done …. of course

“Send in the army”.

That familiar bedfellow of “something must be done” can now be heard coming from the mouths of British politicians and commentators.

They offer it as a solution to the Calais migrant crisis that’s been disrupting links between France and Britain for weeks incommoding commerce and tourism alike.

Apart from the fact England lost control of Calais in the sixteenth century and it is now part of sovereign French territory, the proposal that British troops be sent to France to secure the Ferry and Eurotunnel terminals and prevent the thousands of migrants there from attempting to stow away on lorries or get through the Channel Tunnel is not a solution.

As things stand London is struggling to convince that it is on top of the situation.

But the pressure Cameron is under is partly of his own making.

His government has failed to keep its – arguably unrealistic – promise five years ago to cut net immigration to under 100,000 a year, so any sense that migration is “out of control” leads to loud headlines and the need to appear to take decisive action.

This means things that are done like providing money for improved fencing at Calais and the offer of sniffer dogs – which make sense – appear inadequate in the eyes of critics.

Clearly, there is an immediate need.

Migrants who have gathered at makeshift camps near the French port after having made their way – in most cases – from the Middle East and Africa via south and south-east Europe need to be given accommodation and have their claims for asylum processed.

This will almost certainly require large-scale police action, where, if France agrees, British officers can help to move the migrants to alternative sites.

But this is not something military forces should be used – or indeed are trained – for.

Beyond dealing with the immediate problem though, the crisis will not be solved until a few other things are sorted out.

EU countries need to start actually cooperating, rather than merely promising to cooperate, in dealing with the thousands of desperate people crossing the Mediterranean.

Italy and Greece – and now increasingly Hungary – where most of the Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Eritreans, Sudanese and others first arrive in the EU can’t cope on their own.

EU leaders – with the exception of the Brits, Danes and Hungarians – agreed at their June summit to share the burden by accepting allocations of asylum seekers, but progress is clearly not fast enough to keep up with the numbers arriving.

And while not all the migrants are refugees from conflict and oppression, Britain and its EU partners have a moral and legal obligation to give asylum claims a fair hearing.

The EU could also help to reduce the number of purely economic migrants by getting serious about helping African and Middle Eastern countries provide jobs and decent living standards by opening up their markets and investing in those countries, as well as better targeting development aid.

Such a policy was put in place twenty years ago under the Barcelona Process, but it has always seemed to lose out to other political and economic priorities and has proved inadequate.

But that still leaves the main cause driving the current surge in the number of migrants – the conflict in Syria and Iraq and the anarchic situation in Libya.

The UK has defended its parsimony in giving asylum to Syrian refugees by pointing to the humanitarian aid it is giving to help Syrian refugees in the region and the people displaced inside the country.

It is true Britain is one of the largest aid givers, however, it is revealing that newly released figures show the UK spent much more bombing Libya during the revolt against Colonel Gaddafi in 2011 than it did on aid to help stabilise the country after his overthrow.

And it is precisely the failure to stabilise Libya and its further descent into chaos that has enabled migrants to cross the Mediterranean in such large numbers.

The same skewed approach can be seen in Syria and Iraq.

The US alone is spending more than $ 9 million a day on its air strikes on Islamic State forces, while the UN-led relief operations for the millions of refugees who have fled to neighbouring Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, let alone the millions displaced inside Syria, are chronically underfunded with less then a third of the money needed arriving so far this year.

So is it any wonder people are desperate enough to risk the journey to Europe?

If the politicians in London want to end the crisis in Calais, they don’t need to send in the troops, they need to shoulder a fairer share of the burden of asylum seekers in the EU, something they are currently refusing to do.

They also need to find the money to spend more on supporting international relief operations and be ready to invest in the reconstruction of Libya, Syria and Iraq if and when the fighting ends and the circumstances allow.

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