2015 has been a nightmarish year for people seeking refuge across the Mediterranean in Europe; and we’ve still got the winter months to see through. The number of disasters that tell the tales of drowning, suffocation, and even falling from a plane after clinging to the outside during the best part of a flight from South Africa to London, have not abated. The past week has seen unprecedented media coverage of the latest humanitarian crisis seeping out of Africa and the Middle East. Today Austrian police confirmed 71 people died in a truck found parked on the side of the road- probably from suffocation- and amongst those were four children, one a baby girl.
As a mother, I cannot begin to imagine the agonising this baby’s parents went through when deciding to make this treacherous and fatal journey. How desperate was their situation at home that they decided to flee thousands of miles on foot, squashed on a boat and then in the back of a meat truck? How disconnected from the reality of what is going on in the Middle East and Africa are we?
In April Europe’s leading politicians met to discuss how to address the increasing number of migrants attempting to reach the continent’s shores, with the International Organisation on Migration predicting that 2015 will be the worst year to date for migrant tragedies. The sum of deaths by April had already reached 1,700; more than half the total number of migrant deaths recorded in the whole of 2014. Since then the loss of human life has risen to 2,500 according to the UNHCR. The question that comes to my mind is how many of these lives could have been saved if we had just provided better search and rescue efforts and easier, legal, routes which refugees could use to reach safety?
The overuse of the terms ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’ in the media has disconnected many of us in Europe and has served to create a narrative of ‘us’ and ‘them’. In reality, these migrants are just like us; young men, women and even children with hopes and ambitions to create a better future for themselves. Their ambitions are so strong and needs so dire that they are willing to undertake what can only be described as a journey from hell. The only difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is that we in Europe were fortunate enough to either be born or find other legal recourse to residence here. For those less fortunate, their journey may begin in war torn Syria, where four years of civil war has created almost four million refugees according to the UN Refugee Agency. The other major source of migrants is Eritrea where indefinite military service, arbitrary detention and torture are causing a mass exodus of adults and children as young as seven to travel hundreds of miles of desert by foot, according to research conducted by the BBC’s Panorama and a Human Rights Watch Report. The destination? A country racked by war, instability and uncertainty; Libya, where the collapse of the state and resultant lack of policing or employment opportunities has led to the transformation of young graduates into ruthless people traffickers. Upon reaching Libya these desperate migrants pay a fee, often in the thousands, to be thrown on a fishing boat that is overflowing with passengers the vessel is not fit to transport. The outcome? Hundreds of men, women, children and babies perishing in the waters in the final stage of their nightmarish journey.
Reactions in the UK to these events and on how to deal with the greater number of people attempting this crossing does not say much for the compassion of our citizens. Self-styled celebrity Katie Hopkins declared on LBC radio show earlier this year that a solution to stem the flow of migrants would be to make “a huge bonfire of all the boats they have”. London Mayor Boris Johnson suggested to radio host Nick Ferrari on the 22nd April that the UK needs to “choke off the problem at source” by sending a warship into North African territory. The home and foreign secretary reportedly remained adamant that an expansion of search and rescue operations would serve as a ‘pull’ factor for the migrants, and that focus should instead be placed on combating the traffickers. This despite the UN’s Human Rights Commissioner François Crépeau advising that the UK has the capacity to resettle 14 000 Syrian refugees a year for the next five years.
The Prime Minister does however appear to have been swayed that the UK has a responsibility to assist in this humanitarian crisis and not just with gunboats. The outcome of the emergency summit in Brussels yesterday has seen David Cameron shift from his party members’ views and agree to contribute to the search and rescue operations. The Royal Navy flagship HMS Bulwark has been ordered to Malta to join efforts to find survivors in the aftermath of last weekend’s worst Mediterranean migrant tragedy, and further assistance will be sent in the form of two smaller patrol vessels and three helicopters capable of spotting small craft at sea.
The success of the emergency summit has been limited by the haste in which plans have been made, with the UK still committing to only a minimal number of resettlement of refugees, despite the UN commissioner’s recommendations. The EU foreign and security policy coordinator was also charged with planning a military mission to deal with the migrant problem at source. This of course raises problems including military action on foreign sovereign land, though whether these plans will come to fruition in the face of having to secure a UN Security Council mandate remain to be seen.
In the end, the migrant saga has exposed a glaring hypocrisy amongst us Europeans, particularly here in the UK. For whilst our leaders revel in our international role in promoting democracy, human rights and good governance, we are unable to accept that doing so has in many instances created instability and sown the seeds for internal warfare; such as in Libya. It’s time we owned up to our mistakes and acknowledged our responsibility to the migrants who are only able to make the journey across the sea in their thousands due to the instability in Libya left in the wake of our involvement in assisting the fragmentation of their state. For four years Syria has been in a state of war which has involved countless human rights violations of men, women and children. Yet the democracy brigade has not been deemed necessary (or perhaps, useful) in that instance. Granted, military interventions in the Middle East have been hit and miss, and arguably, mostly miss. So what about humanitarian intervention? Can we just this once make an exception and welcome all Syrian refugees into the UK? Chancellor Merkel just did in Germany. Let us follow suite.
This article follows on from one published on this site in April- Migrants are human. We in the UK need to learn that.