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Friday 15 May 2015

Trapping refugees in North Africa cannot be our response to deaths in the Mediterranean

A guest post by Zoe Gardner of Asylum Aid

The Mediterranean Sea, home of turquoise-shaded summer holidays for many Europeans, is becoming a vast graveyard for our neighbours from across the water. Already this year, over 1,700 people are known to have drowned making desperate journeys across the sea, and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) is warning that 2015 could see as many as 30,000 deaths without urgent action.

While such a loss of human life, regardless of the circumstances, is tragic, there has been a truly shameful attempt to justify the failure to rescue people from this fate by depicting their journeys as illegitimate. Time and again commentators describe the flows as being made up of “economic migrants” searching for improved employment opportunities in Europe, in absolute disregard for the evidence showing that these are in fact overwhelmingly refugees seeking to exercise their right to seek asylum.

A third of the people who have crossed the Mediterranean in this manner since the beginning of the year are Syrian. A further 10% from Afghanistan, and another 10% from Eritrea.

The importance of this point cannot be overstated and the reason for that is not that it would be somehow more acceptable to allow people who don’t qualify for protection status to drown, but that it completely dismantles the “pull-factor” argument. This argument, espoused again by the Home Secretary in her op-ed in The Times on 13 May, puts forward the belief that it is the offer of a new life in the UK or another part of Europe that draws people in, rather than the war or the persecution that forces them out. This is plainly wrong: human beings move themselves and their families out of harm’s way in the hope of something, anything, better. They are not pulled here, but pushed.

The focus in the British response, based on this “pull-factor” assumption, has been to tackle smuggling routes from Libya to Europe. EU states have in fact applied for clearance for military intervention (including the possibility of boots on the ground) in Libya with the purpose of destroying smuggling boats. This knee-jerk reaction will save no lives and solve nothing in the long-term.

Analysts have noted over the past decades how smuggling routes develop in a reciprocal pattern with border controls: where you build a wall on the Greek-Turkish border, flows increase in the Mediterranean and so on. The truth is that desperate people WILL keep moving from danger to safety, and by blocking off one pathway, we simply force them to try another, possibly more dangerous one.

Given these considerations, it is of particular disappointment to Asylum Aid and to our colleagues across the refugee sector that the government continues to refuse to embark on a credible long-term plan to provide safe and legal routes for refugees to reach this country and apply for asylum. The only way to prevent people at risk for their lives from having to make these journeys in smugglers’ boats is to participate in resettlement schemes to take those people directly out of the region and bring them to safety. This option allows us to specify the number of arrivals, the safety of their journey, and the resources that need to be made available to accommodate them on arrival.

By participating fully in the UN’s call for developed nations to resettle between them a mere 10% of Syria’s refugees, the UK would be saving lives twice over: first by offering a new safe life to the families concerned, and second by protecting them from having to take these dangerous sea journeys out of desperation. So far, out of the well over 3 million refugees produced by the Syrian conflict, the UK has taken in a mere 143; the few thousand more people which participation in such as scheme implies would be entirely manageable for a country as rich as we are.

To find out more about Asylum Aid’s work and to get involved, please visit www.asylumaid.org.uk or sign up to receive our newsletters and campaign news.