Supporting safe passage: Europe can and must do more

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Over 5,000 people have died trying to cross the Mediterranean to the EU in the last 18 months. [U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa/U.S. 6th Fleet/Flickr]

As the global number of displaced people reaches its highest level since WW II, developed countries must assume their responsibilities and deal with the causes of mass migration, writes Michael Adamson. 

Michael Adamson is the CEO of the British Red Cross. This piece is also signed by the leaders of 20 other European Red Cross societies.

It is right that so much of the world’s attention and sympathy is focused on the victims of the recent earthquake in Nepal. It is also right that we don’t lose sight of the other humanitarian crisis that dominated our attention in the days preceding the earthquake – that of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.

Both crises are tragic and have taken thousands of lives. However, the sudden onset of a natural disaster makes a lot of difference to the way we react as observers. Prolonged, complex crises that accumulate victims over time fail to generate the outpouring of support common in reactions to an earthquake or a typhoon.

We need to challenge this reaction and recognise that the plight of migrants also constitutes a humanitarian emergency. Over 5,000 people are believed to have lost their lives attempting to reach Europe via the Mediterranean in the last 18 months. This makes these waters the most dangerous borders in the world. This should trigger action, commitment and support.

We, the Red Cross Societies of Europe, know that the greatest efforts need to focus on the points of origin – on providing humanitarian assistance and making diplomatic efforts to ease conditions within the conflict zones, refugee camps and impoverished countries that people are fleeing from. Addressing the underlying issues should be at the heart of any strategy. We must, however, not be naive about its ability to produce instant results. Many of the world’s most violent conflicts, such as those in Syria, Iraq or South Sudan, are far from resolution. Some of the world’s most difficult political contexts, such as in the Horn of Africa, will not be resolved through aid alone.

Even where substantial aid is provided, such as in refugee camps, we know that tents, blankets and food make life slightly more tolerable, but they do not reduce the hardship, indignity and frustration of camp life. It is only natural that people want and need more than to be kept alive by aid. Therefore, the most desperate and determined will continue to risk everything for the chance to build a better future.

Any attempt to suppress that ambition will fail. In many cases, it will also be morally unjustifiable considering the terrors and extreme poverty that people are fleeing from and the numbers of people on the move. Last year, the number of people forced to migrate exceeded 50 million for the first time since the Second World War.

People will continue to flee desperate situations and inaction by the EU and its member states will only lead to more suffering. It will mean more harrowing tales of exploitation and abuse, culminating in terrifying and deadly journeys like the one across the Mediterranean Sea.

Many have been urging for inaction as all options to ease the journey could be seen as a pull factor. We in the Red Cross urge our governments to rise above such rhetoric, recognise that migration is a fact of life, and meet their obligations under international law. We must find humane and effective ways of managing it as an international community.

Last month, European leaders held a summit in Brussels and committed to increasing the search and rescue operations across the Mediterranean.

Improving the scope of search and rescue is vital but should be only one component of a broader strategy.

The summit was just the beginning. We need to build on it to develop migration and asylum policies which are forward-looking and firmly based on the principles of humanity, solidarity and respect for human rights. These policies must both aim to address the underlying issues, and ensure legal protection and essential humanitarian assistance along the well-known migration routes.

Controversially, but crucially, it will also require doing more to offer safe and legal ways to claim asylum across Europe and to distribute that responsibility proportionately and fairly across the continent. Despite fears to the contrary, this will still represent a minority of asylum applications. As the UNHCR continues to emphasise – over 80% of refugees choose to stay as close as possible to their country of origin in order to preserve the possibility of going home. Consequently, this places the lion’s share of the responsibility for supporting the world’s most vulnerable people not on the shoulders of the first world economies of Europe but on the shoulders of some of the world’s poorest countries.

We should bear that fact in mind before denying our responsibilities in this crisis. Migration and asylum claims are part of our modern world and we need to be pro-active in international collaboration between countries of origin, transit and destination in order to preserve the right to seek international protection.

This might not be popular everywhere, but it is the right thing to do.

The piece is endorsed by:

Werner Kerschbaum – Secretary General, Austrian Red Cross

Philippe Vandekerckhove – CEO, Belgian Red Cross-FL

Prof. Danièle Sondag-Thull – CEO, Belgian Red Cross – FR

Robert Markt – Executive President, Croatian Red Cross

Takis Neophytou – Director General, Cyprus Red Cross Society

Anders Laderkarl – Secretary General, Danish Red Cross

Kristiina Kumpula – Secretary General, Finnish Red Cross

Stephane Mantion – Director General, French Red Cross

Dr Rudolf Seiters – President, German Red Cross

Dr. Zsigmond Göndöcs – President, Hungarian Red Cross

John Roche & Sandra Stanley – Interim Secretaries General, Irish Red Cross

Francesco Rocca – President, Italian Red Cross

Grazina Jevgrafoviene – Secretary General, Lithuanian Red Cross

Michel Simonis – Director General, Luxembourg Red Cross

Paulette Fenech – Director General, Malta Red Cross

Gijs de Vries – CEO, Netherlands Red Cross

Asne Havnelid – Secretary General – Norwegian Red Cross

Leopoldo Perez Suarez – Secretary General, Spanish Red Cross

Ulrika Årehed Kågström – Secretary General, Swedish Red Cross

Mag. Pharm. Hristo Grigorov Dr. H.C – President of the Bulgarian Red Cross

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