by Sonali Nundoochan. A second year British-Mauritian student reading BA International Relations at the War Studies Department of King’s College London.
The sinking of boats, the drownings, the suffocation on board a lorry, the attempted jumps onto trains, the violence inflicted by smugglers and traffickers. The more generous welcomes by Germany and Sweden on the one hand, but teargas in Macedonia, razor wire fence and station bans in Hungary, on the other. Europe’s current system is failing more people than it protects and it is clear that a new set of policies; a coordinated European strategy, needs to be created. However, it is not just Europe that needs to help; this is a global issue that requires all countries to play their part. So what can be done to address this crisis? What are the potential solutions, and which is the one solution that needs to be put into action?
The Australian Solution
Australia decided to prevent people from reaching its shores by turning boats back to the country they came from. This ‘stop the boats’ policy resulted in 1 boat reaching Australia in 2014 compared to the 300 in 2013. This highly controversial policy had its obvious criticisms. Firstly, towing the boats back is morally wrong as it means sending back those fleeing persecution, torture and a strong likelihood of death, back to these situations and to countries ravaged by war and chaos. Turning our backs onto people who are seeking security is abhorrent. It violates the fundamental human right that everyone has to seek asylum-indeed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 14), states that everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum from persecution in other countries. Also, the 1951 UN Refugee Convention protects refugees from being returned to countries where they risk persecution. Turning boats back is not a solution to the crisis, it is merely a way to ignore it. It does not help save lives, but rather, it extinguishes any ray of hope that innocent refugees have of survival.
Tackling the causes
Why are so many people leaving their countries and heading for Europe? Mainly because of the political and economic turmoil and the labyrinth of tensions that exist in the Western Balkans, the Middle East and Africa: Syria’s brutal civil war, Afghanistan and Eritrea’s poverty and human rights violations, the marginalisation of the Roma community in Kosovo. While these are conflicts and problems that obviously cannot be solved overnight, leaders need to start working together over development issues and efforts in Africa and the Middle East. The truth is, this is not just a European issue. This is a global issue because many countries are involved in this refugee crisis-The US and many other play a key role in conflicts across the Middle East, for example in Syria. Russia and Iran too are involved, through their support for the Assad regime. Key actors in conflicts need to work towards a solution that will bring stability to the lives of those in these war-torn regions. Other countries too need to play a bigger role in helping those fleeing, rather than ignoring the problem. The governments of Arab Gulf countries too, such as Saudi Arabia, should take more action to welcome Syrian refugees in, not just Europe.
David Cameron made it very clear that Britain is opposed to accepting more refugees, claiming that doing so will not achieve peace and stability in Syria. However, as STAR (Student Action for Refugees) correctly put it, this line of reasoning is similar to arguing that rescuing people from a burning building will not put out the fire. While accepting more refugees will not create peace in the Middle East, it will provide those fleeing from the conflict a chance of life and hope. Therefore, while it is important that efforts need to be aimed towards solving the conflicts in the regions of instability, the highest priority of governments should be the lives of the refugees that are attempting to reach their countries, and those that have made it. What these refugees need right now, is help and support. Not fences, barricades or any more obstacles on their quest to survive.
This is a solution that so far concerns solely Europe rather than other countries. While the EU has a common set of rules about how to deal with asylum seekers (which applies to most member states – though not UK and Ireland) where under the Dublin Regulation, refugees should apply for asylum in the first EU country they enter, the problem with this rule is that after the voyage across the Mediterranean Sea, refugees arrive mainly in Greece and Italy, countries which are unable to cope with processing the increasing number of refugees. Hence these countries need a great deal of financial and logistic support in order to effectively manage. Most importantly, every EU country should be prepared to take its fair share of asylum seekers. But the quota system comes with its fair share of disagreements as no country wants to be prescribed the number it should have to take in. There are concerns ranging from how to differentiate between economic migrants and refugees whose lives are really at risk in their country back home. Meanwhile, some countries are facing their own economic difficulties, such as Spain with an unemployment rate of 23% and are hence wary of accommodating refugees. Therefore agreeing on a quota system does not seem as a solution that will be agreed upon anytime soon, considering the political deadlock over the matter.
Starting humanitarian operations at sea and welcoming refugees into the country
This is probably the most humane way of dealing with the crisis, but one that many countries have been reluctant to support. It directly addresses the main issue at the heart of the refugee crisis- which is the life of the refugee. We cannot wave a magic wand and bring peace to the Middle East immediately. But we can start saving lives at sea, and we can welcome those at our borders in and not point them back to the country they have risked their lives trying to escape from. Nobody wants the Mediterranean to become a mass graveyard. Europe, and richer Arab states do have the resources to allow and cope with more asylum seekers. If Lebanon- a country that is more than 100 times smaller than the EU, can take in more than 50 times as many refugees than the EU even considers resettling, then surely the UK can accept more asylum seekers. Yvette Cooper stated that “If every city took 10 refugee families, if every London borough took 10 families, if every county council took 10 families, if Scotland, Wales and every English region played their part, then in a month we’d have nearly 10,000 more places for vulnerable refugees fleeing danger, seeking safety.” We need to dispel the myths about refugees and asylum seekers causing economic strains and being a social burden. Nationalist parties have been very hostile towards them, portraying them in a negative light and creating a sense of insecurity amongst locals by referring to them as ‘floods’ and ‘swarms’.
Germany’s policy change has been admired by many who are calling for their own governments to be as welcoming to refugees. UK and other countries need to follow suit, as soon as possible. However, Germany and other countries should not stop there. The journey and risks taken by refugees to reach Europe needs to be addressed. Therefore, what is also needed is an EU strategy to stop the deaths at sea or across borders. Refugees will not be deterred. The simple fact that they are willing to risk their lives by crossing borders and oceans proves that this crisis cannot be prevented. It will continue to happen-people won’t stop fleeing war and persecution. And in the meantime, we can either bury our heads in the sand and let countless of innocent lives be lost, or we can help them by creating a safe passage to Europe. Humanitarian operations need to be carried out and EU countries (and non EU countries too?) need to share the cost of helicopters and boats to save and rescue those at sea. The end of Mare Nostrum- Italy’s navy humanitarian operation in 2014 which rescued over 166000 people in one year was replaced by a smaller operation called Triton, but its main focus is supervision and patrolling borders rather than saving lives.
In my opinion, perhaps we should stop treating these refugees as a burden that should be shared out equally amongst countries, but rather we should see them as the individuals each of them are. What we need to do is to welcome them in, with open minds and hearts, not closed borders. They will have to be integrated within society and this will only be possible if we change our attitudes and dissolve any stereotypical views we have concerning asylum seekers. We need to stand in solidarity with these innocent refugees, and recent events have proved that many are willing to help- whether this is reflected in the overwhelming amount of help and support in Munich, the volunteers that head down to Calais to help out, football fans in Germany raising banners welcoming refugees, or simply when each of us feels frustrated by what we see on our screens and feel disillusioned with our governments’ failure to act responsibly. It is clear that many of us feel the strong desire to help and support these vulnerable people. What needs to be done now is to translate this desire into action through a unified system that will save and help the desperate human beings that head towards Europe every day. So how can we do this? We need to call our governments to accept more asylum seekers. After having risked their lives across borders and oceans, we cannot let them live in inhuman conditions. The UK has recently agreed to take in Syrian refugees from UN camps, but what about those already in Europe? These are all concerns that need to be addressed and shared by the global community. We can all help in many ways- either by making a donation to the organisations that provide humanitarian services, or by volunteering at refugee camps, engaging in campaigning and lobbying the government or by signing petitions and voicing out our concerns to our MPs and showing our compassion and willingness to discuss the government’s lack of responsibility. Governments who are failing their citizens, failing vulnerable refugees, and failing humanity. This is a global issue. And therefore, this requires a global response.