Europe is in a humanitarian crisis. We have never had so many people arrive in Europe fleeing war, repression and fear. Thousands of refugees continue to arrive at EU borders every day. More than 800’000 refugees and migrants have reached Europe so far with over 3’400 people including children having lost their lives making the journey.
Government’s inaction has contributed to the death toll and the suffering that has endured. Throughout the past few months newspapers have published tragic stories of refugees suffocating in vehicles or drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. None of this moved the government to action. But then a three year old Syrian boy, Aylan Kurdi was found dead on a Turkish beach and the images that were published, were so shocking and suffering so evident that Europe was forced to notice the crisis that was unfolding.
The public demanded action and the culture of indifference towards the pain of others started to change. At first EU countries acted very differently in their response to the crisis and the attempt to equally distribute refuges amongst European countries was restricted by some states. Other EU countries stepped up to help ease suffering and Germany offered humanitarian aid and welcomed in up to 80’000 refugees before September. Germany remains the most popular destination for refugees with more than 330’000 applications for asylum so far this year.
EU government leaders agreed last month to share responsibility for 160’000 asylum seekers already in the EU, redistributing them from Greece and Italy over the next two years. The UK will not be bound to these plans as we are not part of the Schengen agreement allowing passport free movement within Europe. The UK has made it clear that they will not be participating in a quota system. Some EU counties like the Czech Republic voted against the system on the grounds that it interfered with their sovereign right to decide their own policies and that it will encourage more refuges to come to Europe.
The UK has now promised to resettle 1000 refugees by Christmas and 20’000 in the next 5 years. Many Governments are trying to prevent arrivals of refugees instead of managing the daily arrivals in a humane way.
Refugees are coming from a number of countries but the largest group of refugees are from Syria, they are fleeing the four and half year civil war that has destroyed the country. Other refugees are from Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan.
There is evidence from the United Nations Human Rights Commission that refugees are fleeing to Europe as a result of the deteriorating conditions in the Middle East. There has been a 10% fall in funding for refugee camps as well as far more people needing refuge, all of which have resulted in much more demand for water, food, shelter and medicines. There are currently four million people in refugee camps in the Middle East which are two billion pounds short of what they need to function as they need to.
Europe has spent months squabbling over which country will take the refugees in while other countries put up fences to keep refugees out. This all adds to the negative stereotype of refugees, all of which has been exacerbated in the last week following the Paris terror attacks that have killed 129 people and injured hundreds more. There have been claims that ISIS terrorists have managed to enter EU countries among the refugees arriving daily and this is who have been accused of the horrific Paris attacks. Despite the fact that these claims lack credibility and in fact none of the suspects recently arrived in Paris from Syria, Poland has announced that it will no longer offer sanctuary to thousands of refugees via the new EU refugee quota system. In Britain more than 420,000 people have signed a petition calling on the UK to 'close its borders', following the attacks in Paris.
The United Nations are urging countries not to blame refugees for the atrocities that have occurred in Paris. They have expressed deep concern about the suggestion that some states may restrict even further access to refuge, backtracking on commitments they have already made.
Refugees know better than anyone about these kinds of attacks as for many this will have been a frequent experience in their home countries and exactly what they are fleeing. No matter what conditions they face when they get to Europe refugees will continue to come as the alternative is far worse.
We need a global strategy that includes all the countries in Europe welcoming refugees and helping to fight the humanitarian crisis that has gone on far too long. It has been a shameful summer for Europe defined by thousands of deaths. Even with new plans in place the situation remains desperate. According to Human Rights Watch the plan to relocate tens of thousands of refugees from frontline states such as Greece and Italy has gotten off to such a slow start that at this rate it will take over 180 years to reach the target. Human beings should not have to risk their lives, face multiple obstacles and dismal conditions to reach a place of refuge. The European Union has a legal as well as moral obligation to protect refugees from unnecessary suffering, ensure access to asylum and place human rights, respect and dignity for all, at the heart of this challenge.
By Mireille Thompson