A question of priorities

Humanitarian visas may not be a panacea and they will not completely stem irregular immigration to Europe. But they can at least save lives. At this point, Europe must decide on its priorities once and for all.

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

A week ago today, the UN refugee agency reported that as many as 500 asylum seekers may have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea between Libya and Italy.

Sadly, the story went largely unnoticed, as Malta – along with the rest of the world – was busy discussing the Panama Papers, celebrating Queen Elizabeth’s 90th birthday, and mourning the sudden death of US music legend Prince.

Faced with a tragedy of this proportion, Europe must clearly take a long, hard look at its priorities. Although not officially confirmed, the UNHCR’s fears have been corroborated by a group of 41 migrants who were rescued from a drifting vessel off Greece. 

One of the survivors, an Ethiopian man named Mohamed who was travelling with his family, told the International Organisation for Migration (IOM): “I saw my wife and my 2-month-old child die at sea, together with my brother-in-law. . . The boat was going down. . . down. . . All the people died in a matter of minutes.”

If confirmed, the toll would make the incident one of the worst tragedies involving refugees and migrants in the past year.

Almost a year ago, on April 18, a boat carrying some 850 people capsized and sank off the Libyan coast – the biggest single disaster on record to date.

This latest accident will also bring to over 850 the number of migrants who lost their lives on the Mediterranean Sea’s central route between North Africa and Europe so far in 2016.

Additionally, 377 migrants reportedly died this year on the Eastern Mediterranean route between Turkey and Greece.

But despite the consistency of these alarming figures, the European Union’s response to the migration tragedy has remained largely reactive. Even then, it remains manifestly ineffective when it comes to what should be our number one priority: saving lives at sea.

Following the controversial deal between the EU and Turkey, aimed at stopping refugee boats crossing to Greece, Egypt has once again seen activity picking up, and Eastern Libya might follow suit.

This is to be expected: recent history amply confirms that efforts to block one route into Europe only succeed in opening up others.

The deal is controversial for other reasons. Although Turkey is a signatory of the 1951 UN Convention on the Status of Refugees, it imposes geographic limitations on its applicability, with only European refugees being accepted.

Beyond Turkey’s human rights record and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s totalitarianism, the question is whether the EU deal has really stanched the migrant flow into Europe… or whether migrants will simply find a different entry point to Europe.

The deal is set to drive Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans towards the more dangerous Central Mediterranean route, with Italy and Malta being the destinations for people attempting to reach Europe. 

The plan is nothing but an attempt to close the borders for people in need of international protection, putting an end to the right to claim and seek asylum.

This brings us back to the central issue of migration. Blocking entry into Europe from Greece is not a solution. It will only lead to smugglers and migrants to seek other, less closely monitored ways of reaching the European mainland.

Certainly, the EU’s grand plans do nothing to stop people from embarking on perilous journeys to Europe in the first place; the latest tragedy confirms as much in no uncertain terms.

Moreover, the central consideration remains unaddressed. The EU seems more concerned with placating a growing rightwing anti-immigration sentiment, than with actually living up to the ideals and principles laid down in its own treaties.

We seem to be forgetting that – whatever the logistical challenges involved – people have a right to seek asylum: a right which is enshrined in the European Charter of Human Rights. 

Because of the EU’s policies, however, asylum seekers are being left with no option but to pursue their rights through clandestine means. This has been the direct cause of tragedy and chaos, and has only resulted in more people dying on Europe’s roads and drowning at sea. 

European leaders have so far ruled out the only solution which would avoid tragedies and death; i.e., providing legal channels to travel to Europe through humanitarian visas.

Humanitarian visas are also the biggest weapon against human trafficking. Europe has declared a “war on smugglers,” even proposing to use military force against them. Not unlike the “war on drugs,” however, such policies are doomed from the outset as they fail to address the demand side of the equation: in this case, the need of vulnerable and desperate people to reach a place where they can live in dignity. 

European governments will understandably view legal entry as a “pull factor”; however, consular points outside Europe’s external border would cater mainly for people who are already almost in the European Union and about to risk a dangerous boat journey. 

Visas would only be given to likely refugees. More importantly, it is a worthwhile price to pay if it saves lives, while simultaneously curtailing the human-trafficking market.

Humanitarian visas may not be a panacea and they will not completely stem irregular immigration to Europe. But they can at least save lives.

At this point, Europe must decide on its priorities once and for all.

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