Migrants drowned in EU laziness and incompetence

Sadly, the public discourse regarding immigration in Europe became tainted with prejudice, sterotypes and racism

Yossi Mekelberg
Yossi Mekelberg
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In the face of the mounting refugee tragedy in the Mediterranean, it defies logic and a sense of morality that such a wealthy and resourceful EU does not show adequate strategy and also compassion. Worryingly, there is not a sign of an intelligent public debate, which would reflect care for the lives and the well being of these desperate people trying to reach safety. There is endless scare mongering and misrepresentation of reality to appease concerned voters, xenophobic elements among the media and ultranationalist-anti immigrant political parties.

Self-evidently there is a need for a fact-based debate that takes into account the conditions in the countries of origin of these would be refugees, the actual numbers of those who are fleeing and the capacity for adequate absorption within the European Union and outside it. It is not unreasonable to expect that countries that individually and collectively committed themselves to the advancement of human rights would not turn their backs on many thousands of people, that in their desperation look for refuge. The current EU approach lacks not only moral credibility, but also defies international law; the very international law that the continent’s leaders are more than happy to use as a whip against other countries which violate it.

One of the false assertions flung at those who would like to see a more balanced approach to immigration, is that what they are suggesting could lead to an unlimited and unchecked exodus of people into EU countries. However, leaving aside the issue of economic migration, the majority of those who risk their lives in attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea are genuine asylum seekers, fleeing from war zones, persecution and likely death. They are exploited by unscrupulous traffickers who extract sums of money from them that they can hardly afford. According to the International Organization of Migration, a Geneva based leading inter-governmental organization, 2300 people have already drowned this year and numbers of fatalities are on the rise, despite the launch of operation Triton. The operation, which is conducted by the EU’s border security agency Frontex, gives a partial answer to an ever-increasing challenge, mainly because of the lack of adequate resources. It was launched late last year in response to growing criticism from inside and outside of the EU for the loss of more than 3500 lives in the Mediterranean in 2014.

So far this year it is estimated that the number of migrants and asylum seekers, who have arrived in Europe by sea so far in 2015, has reached a quarter of a million people. These numbers reflect the desperation of the situation in the asylum seekers’ countries of origin, more than the attractiveness of reaching Europe. These people are putting their fate in the hands of many callous smugglers and embarking on the dangerous crossing to safety, only to face an uncertain future and many times rejection.

Sadly, the public discourse regarding immigration in Europe became tainted with prejudice, stereotypes and racism

Yossi Mekelberg

A quick glance at statistical figures reveals that indeed a substantial number of those who attempt to reach the shores of Europe, “seek to escape inequality, dysfunctional governance and poverty back home.” Nevertheless, according to the UNHCR, over 60 percent of those who take this extremely dangerous route across the sea are coming from war torn countries such Syria, Somalia and Afghanistan, or from Eriteria –a country that is according to Human Rights Watch “…is ruled by one of the most repressive governments in Africa.” Many others come from other countries stricken by human rights abuses, internal displacement and inter-community conflict. Hence, it is an imperative for the free world to acknowledge the fact that many of those who embark on this treacherous journey are genuine asylum seekers, and sending them back home would most probably put them in risk of imprisonment, torture or even death. It is a moral and international legal obligation that especially Europe with its particular past cannot and should not ignore.

Answering to a humanitarian crisis

So far EU institutions demonstrated, once again, inability to provide a comprehensive answer to an acute humanitarian crisis. Demanding from EU countries to improve their search and rescue operation is an obvious first step. Unfortunately, even when member states agreed early this summer to absorb 60,000 refugees, they insisted that the arrangement would be a voluntary one, or in other words, further promises with no firm commitment.

Sadly, the public discourse regarding immigration in Europe became tainted with prejudice, sterotypes and racism, which to a large extent explain the unacceptable apathy to the ongoing tragedy in the waters of the Mediterranean. Constantly migrants are mentioned in the same breath with security risk, burden on public finances, fraud and more generally as a ‘social cost.’ Facing this atmosphere it is not surprising that those who advocate a more complex and sophisticated approach to migration, which wouldn’t lump together all cross border movement are ignored, even silenced.

The utter failure and inconsistency in dealing with migration within the EU requires a new and honest approach, which recognizes that for an array of reasons including a shortage of skills and an aging population some level of migration is beneficial for the prosperity of the continent. There is also a need to acknowledge that migration into the EU has had a compelling influence on shaping its character, while posing serious challenges of genuine integration and value sharing. The long-term solution may rely on tackling the root causes of the conditions that force asylum seekers and even economic migrants out of their countries. Nevertheless, until these long term goals are addressed and attained, it is vital that urgent efforts are made to rescue those, who in their desperation to save their and their families’ lives and liberty are fleeing their homes in hope of reaching safety across the Mediterranean Basin.

Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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