THE BLOG

Let's Lift Europe's Death Sentence for Refugees

24/04/2015 11:06 BST | Updated 23/06/2015 10:59 BST
ASSOCIATED PRESS

On Thursday, 28 European leaders held a crisis summit. Why? Because in just four months, more than 1,700 people have drowned in the Mediterranean. That's similar to the mortality rate at the height of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa. It took a huge global effort and over $5.1billion in pledged funding to bring Ebola under control. For this crisis, there's an annual budget of around just €9.5million for search and rescue.

The summit was a chance to change that. Instead it produced a response that will go down as one of the most shameful and inadequate of modern times. Yes, increased funding for search and rescue is welcome. But there's no new mandate to make this effective. Nor is there any plan to help refugees in the long-term, beyond a crackdown on smugglers and perhaps military strikes to destroy the often unseaworthy boats that make the trip. The EU's focus is still on keeping people out, not keeping them safe.

This approach is illegal, impractical, and immoral. Every person making this crossing is entitled to a fair hearing and protection if they are shown to be a refugee. Thursday's summit failed to acknowledge this, and will thus do little to end the humanitarian emergency on our doorstep. If it truly wants to protect people, Europe needs to tackle both the current crisis and its underlying causes - like the fact that the world is currently facing its worst refugee crisis since the end of the Second World War.

Europe's approach must be shaped by the needs of those at the heart of this crisis. 46% of those arriving in Italy by boat in 2014 were Syrian or Eritrean. Others came from Libya, Somalia and other countries in crisis. Syria is burning - conflict there has created 3.3million refugees, of which the UK has resettled fewer than 150. There's no doubt Syrians have protection needs. Of those who make it to the UK from Syria, 86% are granted refugee status. With so few legal routes to safety, is it any wonder Syrians are forced to try and make this dangerous crossing into Europe?

The UK hasn't forgotten these refugees. In midst of the General Election, their plight has been debated by every party leader. It's been encouraging to see every single party shift their position and acknowledge that Europe did the wrong thing when it stopped search and rescue in the Mediterranean in October 2014. Ed Miliband has been unequivocal in his support for search and rescue; Nick Clegg, who initially defended the government's decision, performed a swift U-turn and voiced his support too. David Cameron made the case in Europe for a substantial increase in funding for search and rescue, and struck a very different tone to that of his home secretary.

But none of these leaders has yet articulated measures that will both protect people now and end the crisis in the future. Their approach, encapsulated by the foreign secretary's statement, is primarily 'to build a wall on the cliff' - not to consider why people might be jumping over it. To really solve this crisis, our next government needs to work with others in Europe to develop a comprehensive approach that saves lives and shows the humanity for which Europe was once known.

There are three key ingredients to this. The first, of course, is search and rescue. A crisis like this demands a well-funded rescue operation, on a similar scale to Mare Nostrum, with a wide remit to protect people.

The second is to re-establish safe and legal routes for refugees to reach protection and support. This requires a European approach, as Germany and others have argued this week. Resettlement is crucial, but so are expanded family reunion rights to protect families driven apart in the chaos of war. Britain has a tradition of helping those in need, offering protection in the past to refugees from Vietnam, Bosnia and Kosovo. It's vital that we support a substantial resettlement programme from refugees from Syria.

The third is to seek long-term solutions to the crises from which so many are fleeing. The importance of this was acknowledged by the European Council. No-one wants to flee their homes, their families and friends, and their homeland. British aid is one part of the solution. So is diplomacy. Europe needs to play its full part in finding longer-term solutions, as all involved acknowledge.

Recently at Refugee Action, we supported a young Syrian man who arrived alone at our Manchester centre. Like so many others, he'd risked his life in a flimsy boat crossing the Mediterranean. The horrors he'd experienced at sea had stayed with him. He told our support worker that all he wanted was 'to be a normal human being with a job and to be reunited with my family'. Since receiving refugee status, he's learnt English and has gained a place a college. He's one of the lucky ones - but thousands of young Syrians like him won't make it to safety.

It's been a shameful week. The 'plan' agreed on Thursday will not work and cannot last. The sight of refugees drowning in the Med is stirred the conscience of many. Southern European countries cannot meet this challenge on their own. In the UK and elsewhere, pressure will continue to grow. Refugee Action will work with all those who want to find a lasting solution for those in need. There's an old saying that nations always do the right thing once they have exhausted the alternatives. Europe's leaders will be back to the table to produce a better deal very soon.