Commentary on global affairs and where they may be headed

Posts tagged ‘migrants’

Media Interest in Refugees May Have Peaked … the Influx Hasn’t

Children are still paying with their lives trying to get to the EU, but it’s no longer front page news.

Since the beginning of last month when the photograph of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach shocked Europeans – public and politicians alike – into grasping the plight of the thousands of refugees on the move from Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan and elsewhere in Africa, more than 40 more children have died.

Men and women are also continuing to lose their lives.

In total, the International Organisation for Migration estimates 3,000 people have died so far this year and the influx is not expected to slow any time soon despite the onset of winter, which will make the trek even more dangerous.

But much of the media has moved on to other stories and the refugees have slipped out of the headlines and down running orders as journalists focus on what they see as fresher news.

The issue briefly returned to the headlines as EU leaders met to agree a grand bargain with Turkey of more aid and visa liberalisation for Turks in exchange for better control of the refugee flow, but the reporting was focused more on the political deal-making than the continuing plight of the refugees.

When challenged, the argument you’ll hear in newsrooms will be that the refugee flows aren’t really news anymore.

It is a common failing. Unable to come up with fresh angles on a story, editors tend to move on and forget to follow up on stories only a few weeks before they couldn’t seem to get enough of.

With the direct intervention of Russia in the war in Syria at the end of September catching many off guard, including most journalists and commentators, the media returned its attention to what is happening on the battlefield.

The people fleeing the conflict have been of less interest, which is an odd omission given the fact that Russia’s military action backing a new government offensive and the response of the US and Saudi Arabia of increasing support for the rebels only makes it likely even more people will flee and add to the refugee flow.

Missing the obvious, with a few exceptions, media outlets are failing to draw their readers’ and audiences’ attention to the link between the man-made humanitarian catastrophe that is the Syrian civil war, the failure of many European states to contribute adequately to the aid operations for refugees in the neighbouring countries, and people making the decision to leave their life and livelihoods behind to seek refuge away from the bombs and bullets.

So should more of the media have stayed with the story?

While most journalists insist they are not campaigners and they are neutral reporters of events, editors in western countries make much of their role as the fourth estate; the guardians of democracy.

But a democracy can only be healthy when citizens – the voters – are well informed about the key issues their political representatives are grappling with.

The refugee influx is one such issue. The numbers are unprecedented in most Europeans’ lifetimes – not since the aftermath of World War Two has the continent seen so many people on the move.

And although many ordinary Europeans, aid organisations and governments have been trying to help the people arriving by road and by sea, we have also witnessed the less noble side of many on the continent who have resorted to spreading rumour and misinformation for their own ends.

The Hungarian government went as far as to stir up anti-refugee sentiment by stuffing scaremongering leaflets through their citizens’ letterboxes. British tabloids have conflated the people seeking asylum with economic migrants to burnish their attacks on the government over immigration. Even in Germany, which along with Sweden has stood out as one of the most sympathetic countries, far right extremists have attacked refugee reception centres.

If European publics are ill-informed about who the refugees are and why they are coming – that they are ordinary people like themselves who’ve been forced to flee their homes – they are less likely to support decisions made by politicians to share the burden of offering asylum and to increase aid to the chronically underfunded relief operation supporting people displaced by conflict.

Charities and NGOs will also find it harder to raise money for the same cause and that in turn could well mean more people attempting the journey to Europe.

Given the refugees are going to keep on coming for the foreseeable future and governments are already struggling to cope with the numbers, the media will be failing in their role as the fourth estate and failing their readers and audiences if they continue to let their interest in the story fade.

If they think their readers and audiences are zoning out, journalists need to find fresh ways to report and explain the whys and wherefores of the influx and to hold politicians to account for the way they have dealt with both the refugees arriving and the reasons they are fleeing their homes.

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.

Europe: more than fraying at the edges

The EU is teetering on the brink of Grexit as the two sides continue to play a momentous game of chicken.

On Sunday, Greeks will be voting in their referendum on whether or not to accept the conditions the EU and IMF have put on giving the country another bailout – and the polls are so finely balanced it’s too close to call.

Germany’s Chancellor Merkel has said no one should tell the Greeks how to vote, but then went on to make clear a “no” means Greece leaving the Euro, so no pressure there then.

Greece’s anti-austerity government on the other hand is pushing for that “no” arguing it will strengthen their negotiating hand. Prime Minister Tsipras seems to be banking on fear of the unpredictable effects of Grexit to force the rest of the Eurozone back to the table.

There has been much talk of Europe fraying at the edges if Greece is forced out of the Euro with some even suggesting Athens will be end up leaving the EU altogether.

But that risks understating the depth of the crisis facing the Union.

What is happening with Greece is a symptom of something that’s eating away at the EU’s very foundations and the glue that binds the 28 nations together is in danger of dissolving.

You have to go back and ask yourself why Europeans created their unique organisation in the first place.

Before 1945, the people of the continent had spent centuries killing each other in the name of king, then country and – in some cases – both and that’s not to mention the wars of religion.

After the devastation and slaughter of World War Two, European leaders – especially in France and Germany – finally woke up to the fact that there must be a better of doing things and started building what has now become the European Union by creating a common market for coal and steel which quickly became the European Economic Community.

In so doing they were appealing to enlightened economic self-interest, but behind the project there was a more altruistic impulse too – to end the threat of war between Europeans by appealing to a sense of solidarity. The idea that what Europeans have in common is much more important than what divides them.

And like Araldite, the glue holding the EU together needs two elements to make a strong bond – that combination of enlightened self-interest and solidarity.

It’s this that has brought many benefits like the ability to live and work anywhere in the EU, something I took advantage of in the early 80s when I left recession-hit Britain to work in Italy – how things have changed, as you see when ordering your cappuccino or latte in a London coffee bar.

But the Europe-wide economic crisis of recent years has chipped away at the sense of solidarity underpinning the EU.

The Greek debt saga has both exposed and fuelled this.

Basically, the German government is unwilling to ask its taxpayers to write off the loans they’ve made to Greece to keep it afloat while it tries to find a way to pay its debts, a form of solidarity that’s called fiscal transfer in economist-speak.

And you can understand why Germans wouldn’t want to do this. After all, Greece has been living beyond its means for years and when borrowing became easier after it joined the Euro because of lower interest rates, Athens continued splurging.

On the other hand, German and other banks were happy to lend to Greece knowing it had a dodgy credit history. This is a country that’s struggled to remain solvent ever since independence in 1832.

It’s also important to point out that the Greek bailout in 2010 was also a bail out for those banks as EU governments, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund basically took on the Greek debt.

But this is a complex argument the German government for one is unwilling to make to its people, so they haven’t and instead blamed it all on profligate Greeks. So it’s not just the usual suspects of the nationalist and populist right like UKIP and Front National who are responsible.

Yet EU solidarity is not just being undermined by the Greek debt crisis

The influx of thousands of migrants crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa is also playing its part.

They are making for the nearest EU countries, mainly Italy and – by unfortunate coincidence – Greece, and they are struggling to cope with the numbers. The European Commission came up with a plan for all 28 countries to relieve the burden on Rome and Athens. After acrimonious talks, where calls for solidarity and responsibility were bandied about, most countries agreed to take a share of asylum-seekers, but some, including Britain, Denmark and Hungary, refused to play ball.

According to some in the room, Italy’s Prime Minister Renzi didn’t mince his words exclaiming at one point: “If this is your idea of Europe, you can keep it. Either there is solidarity, or you don’t waste our time”.

Which kind of sums it up.

If Europeans don’t rediscover the balance between self-interest and solidarity soon, the EU faces an existential threat at its core, which will make external challenges like a resurgent Russia and spill over from chaos in the Arab world look like local difficulties.

 

Dying for the mistakes of others?

More than 400 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean in recent days.

That sentence gives pause for thought and it should.

With the arrival of spring and better weather, 10,000 people have attempted to get into the EU by making the relatively short – but still perilous – crossing from Libya to Italy in recent days.

But they are often sent across in rickety, unseaworthy vessels by unscrupulous people smugglers who abandon them knowing the Italian navy and coastguard, following established humanitarian practice, will try to save them – if they are spotted in time.

Many come from countries torn by conflict like Syria, Libya and Yemen, or ruled by repressive regimes, like Eritrea.

That is the push factor.

But they are not all asylum seekers and there is the pull factor too.

Most can earn more money in Europe than at home and then they can help support their families back home in Africa and the Middle East.

EU governments are not short of advice on the need to use aid and trade to help develop the economies of their near neighbours to take away the incentive to migrate.

There have been a series of agreements and initiatives since the Barcelona Process was launched in 1996, but so far they have failed to staunch the flow of people.

The continuing differences in income between EU and African and Middle Eastern countries would be enough to ensure people still wanted to make the journey.

But the instability and conflict that followed the so-called Arab Spring of 2011 has added to the incentive by making life in several countries much worse.

And EU governments have compounded both the push and the pull with actions that ended up both encouraging and enabling more migrants to make the attempt to get in.

Despite having drawn the conclusion in the 1990s that supporting economic development in the MENA region was a long-term solution to cutting the number of migrants, in the 2000s the EU diverted scarce resources and political attention to its eastward expansion and then the Eastern Partnership initiative with, among others, Ukraine, that has ended in the struggle for influence with Russia.

Also, before 2011, the EU supported regimes in countries like Tunisia and Egypt whose repression helped trigger the uprisings of the Arab Spring which spread and ended in the civil war in Syria which has led 3 million people to flee the country as refugees – not to mention the 6 million internally displaced.

In Libya, several EU countries led by Britain and France, intervened militarily in the uprising against Colonel Gaddafi and helped overthrow him, but then they failed to provide the necessary political and economic support which might have preventing the country collapsing into the anarchy the people smugglers are now exploiting to use the country to funnel migrants across the Mediterranean.

So as things stand, EU countries are in a bind partly of their own making.

The migrants keep coming and popular resentment of immigrants in an economically stagnant Europe keeps growing and is fanned by populist parties like the FN in France and UKIP in Britain which attract support away from established parties by calling for a tougher line on immigration and cuts in foreign aid.

Assuming governments still have the will, this means the political room to enable a long-term answer to the problem – supporting economic development in neighbouring countries – is shrinking.

And the attempt by EU governments to discourage migrants last year by scaling down the effort to rescue boats in trouble has proved no deterrent to would-be migrants.

In the short term, it is likely that media coverage and UN criticism of the rising death toll will force those governments to return to helping the Italians rescue more migrants – which is the humane thing to do, but does nothing to help reach a lasting solution.

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