Tide of humanity that threatens to overwhelm EU's ability to respond
Published 08/08/2015 | 02:30
Another week, another tragic reminder of the quickening refugee crisis on Europe's shores. An estimated 200 people are believed to have perished after a fishing boat said to be carrying 600 desperate refugees and migrants capsized off the coast of Libya on Wednesday.
The Irish Naval Service patrol vessel LE Niamh was first on the scene and carried 367 survivors, including 12 women and 13 children, to safety in Palermo. Niamh's manifest when it docked also included 25 bodies recovered from the sea. Two similar incidents in April resulted in the deaths of some 1,200 people.
The UN this week released figures showing that around 224,000 migrants and refugees have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe so far this year. That is already higher than the 219,000 people who made the journey throughout 2014, which until now had been the highest number on record.
The crisis shows no sign of abating any time soon. Indeed, it promises to get worse, given the unprecedented levels of human displacement due to ongoing conflicts across the Middle East and Africa.
According to the UN, most of those risking the perilous trip across the Mediterranean are refugees fleeing war and persecution, not economic migrants. Syrians fleeing the violence that has wracked their country since 2011 made up 38pc of arrivals in Europe this year. Eritreans accounted for 12pc, followed by Afghans at 11pc, Nigerians at 5pc and Somalis at 4pc.
As President Michael D Higgins put it in a speech to an Amnesty International conference in Dublin yesterday, migration is the greatest human rights issue of our time. But he also took a swipe at the hand-wringing in Europe as policymakers grapple with the question of how to address the crisis while being all too aware that xenophobic rhetoric is on the rise across the continent. Europe's response to the mounting crisis, Mr Higgins said, has been "grossly inadequate and shameful".
The Eurobarometer survey found this week - for the first time since it began researching public opinion across the EU - that immigration came top of the list of problems worrying respondents, surpassing concerns about the economy and unemployment.
The UN refugee agency UNHCR has repeatedly called on the EU to face up to its responsibilities.
"The reason this is a crisis is not because of the number of refugees, but because of Europe's failure to respond to it in a coordinated fashion," a spokesman said this week. "European countries need to work together rather than point fingers at each other."
It is worth noting that Europe is not the only part of the world that has found itself facing today's massive flows of refugees. Nor is it the most affected. Nine out of 10 refugees do not leave their region, seeking sanctuary instead in countries close to or bordering their homelands. The exodus from Syria, in particular, has greatly strained Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. More than a million Syrians have sought refuge in Lebanon, a country of only 4.5 million people, putting enormous pressure on resources there.
It could be argued that Europe has forgotten its own history. In the last century, two world wars reduced millions of Europeans to refugees. The numbers of displaced in the world today are at levels not experienced since the Second World War, yet Europe dithers in its response to an increasingly urgent situation. In a recent commentary, former EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana argued that Europe had a historical obligation to shoulder more of the burden.
"Europe should take the opportunity to respond to today's refugee crisis as it would have liked the world to respond to its suffering - and to prove that the EU's value extends far beyond its borders," he said.
Last month, EU justice ministers considered a plan to relocate up to 40,000 refugees who are currently in Italy and Greece. Ireland said it would accept 600 refugees, most of them from Syria and Eritrea, over the next two years.
But the plan has proved controversial, with member states refusing to agree to binding quotas proposed by the European Commission and some governments, including those of Hungary and Austria, refusing to participate in a voluntary distribution programme. Proponents of a quota-based system of resettlement and relocation argue that it would help spread the burden across EU member states. At present, different national asylum laws have resulted in huge disparities in the number of refugees taken in. A mere four countries - France, Germany, Italy and Sweden - received two-thirds of all refugees accepted in Europe last year.
EU leaders have a legal and moral responsibility to assist those fleeing war and persecution in their home countries.
But they must also better communicate to their citizens why this is the case. They could start with some lessons from history.