Peter Jones: This global exodus shames us all

Europe is simply not doing enough to help migrants fleeing conflict, poverty and criminality, writes Peter Jones

Migrants blocked from moving on demonstrate at the Franco-Italian border this week. Picture: AP
Migrants blocked from moving on demonstrate at the Franco-Italian border this week. Picture: AP

Whatever controversies are worrying us – falling school standards, a struggling health service, political jousting over tax powers – they pale into complete insignificance when compared to the migration crisis now gripping the world. We need to face up to it instead of burying our heads in the sand, for if we don’t, it will only get worse and levy an ever-higher price on us and the rest of the developed world.

The figures for numbers fleeing conflict, poverty, and criminality are staggering. A report issued yesterday by Amnesty International collated some of the information gathered by the UN and other organisations. In 2013, there were an estimated 50 million refugees displaced from home and work seeking help – more than at any time during the Second World War.

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Since 2013, millions more have joined the harrowing trek. Currently there may well be a global refugee problem nearing equivalence to the entire population of Britain. It is a humanitarian crisis on an epically dreadful scale – tens of millions of people at risk of disease, starvation, being preyed on by criminal gangs; generally living at the very margins of existence. And this is the 21st century. It is almost as though all advances in civilisation have been for nought.

European attention is focused on the Mediterranean and the desperation of suffering people to hand everything they have to criminals who will stuff them into unseaworthy craft and send them either to drown or to wash up on the sanctuary of a European shore. According to the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) about 218,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean last year, but 3,500 died.

So far this year, the death toll has been about 1,800, which is around 30 times higher than for the same period last year, while 35,000 are estimated to have made it across. If accurate, this means that for every 25 people who get across the sea, one will die. The risk of death is a horrible measure of the desperation of fleeing people.

The worst of it is that there is no end in sight to the flow of misery. Various estimates suggest there may be as many as a million refugees in Libya. Only a small proportion are Libyan, trying to escape the bloody battling between various warlords trying to seize control of parts of that shattered country or fleeing from the murderous Islamic State (IS) insurgents who now appear to have established more than a foothold there, just 400 miles from European shores.

Many more have made the journey from the war-torn Horn of Africa – Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia – and from almost as conflicted west Africa – Gambia, Nigeria, Mali. Potentially, sub-Saharan refugees may swell the numbers in Libya threefold – the UNHCR estimates there may be 3.5 million refugees in sub-Saharan Africa.

But the biggest refugee nationality in Libya is Syrian. Just over four million people have fled the apocalyptic Syrian civil war; another seven million are reckoned to have been, in the dry humanitarian jargon, internally displaced. Given that there appear to be increasingly few parts of Syria which could be described just as low risk, many more of these seven million look destined to quit their homeland.

Some refugees are trying to penetrate Europe by other routes. Having got to Greece, either by boat or overland through Turkey, they are trying to walk to northern Europe. Médecins sans Frontieres reckons that 300 people a day, or 105,000 a year, are trekking through the Balkans.

There they fall prey to Macedonian gangs who capture them, treat them abominably, and demand ransom payments for their release.

A lot of these people are further afield than the Middle East. Western TV crews have found Afghan kidnap victims and Afghan kidnappers involved in the Macedonian horror. Around 13,000 of the people crossing the Mediterranean last year were from Afghanistan.

Add up the millions fleeing persecution in Africa, the Middle East, and central Asia, compare that to the 300,000 or so who tried to reach Europe last year, and it is far from alarmist exaggeration to contend that if the causes of present migration are unchecked, many millions more people may try to seek safety in Europe. And for years to come.

What should be done? Starting with the causes of the migration crisis and, apart from targeted action to kill IS murderers, Libya’s shattered condition is a powerful argument against military intervention. Diplomatic activity and humanitarian/development aid aimed at removing the causes of strife and improving the conditions for suffering civilians is the only way forward.

A better way of dealing with the Mediterranean boat people crisis would be for the EU to pay countries to establish camps on northern African shores where people can apply for asylum. Provided applications can be processed fairly, quickly and with a reasonable approval rate, that should greatly reduce the people-smuggling business.

Internationally, more countries need to step up and help Lebanon and Jordan with the Syrian refugees that are overwhelming them. The Amnesty report says that to date, only 23 per cent of the UN’s appeal for Syrian refugee aid has been funded and only 2.2 per cent of refugees registered with UNCHR have been re-settled.

That raises the tricky question of countries like Britain accepting many more refugees than so far. Shamefully, Britain accepted only 14,000 of the Mediterranean asylum-seekers in 2014. Relative to Britain’s population and wealth, it was about a fifth of the numbers taken in by Denmark and Norway.

Of course, that means the UK government having to row hard against the tide of public opinion. But, as Peter Sutherland, the UN’s special representative on migration, says, the positive case for migrants and asylum-seekers – that their unemployment rate is lower than the British average and therefore they add rather than subtract from the UK economy – is rarely made.

Personally, I refuse to believe that the British are so hard-hearted that they prefer to leave suffering people to rot and die in sickening conditions, to be preyed upon by vicious criminals, or to drown in last desperate efforts to reach safety, than to extend a helping hand. Politicians of all parties, but especially David Cameron, must step up to the humanitarian plate.