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Europe’s refugee policy is broken

The EU can’t expect Italy and Greece to shoulder the burden of an entire continent

April 21, 2015 2:00AM ET

Late last week, I finished a draft op-ed in response to the drowning of 400 immigrants whose boat capsized while they were attempting to cross the Mediterranean and make it to Italy from North Africa.

Their deaths had already brought the number of people who have perished in 2015 attempting the perilous trip to Europe, to more than 650. That’s more than over the same period in 2014 (a record year) and more than all of 2013.

Less than 48 later, I had to revise: Another 700 to 950 people drowned on their way to the Italian island of Lampedusa. This latest incident, which I’m sure won’t be the last, brings the death toll up to more than 1,500, inside four months.

Such is the magnitude of the tragedy unfolding in front of our eyes in the Med, that I’m uncertain whether the number will be accurate by the time this is published. As the weather improves, the flow of people fleeing the war zones surrounding Europe’s southern borders will only increase, and so will the numbers of those who never make it across.

The European Union must address this crisis immediately and overhaul its entire refugee policy.

Anti-immigration politics

It is tragic irony that the latest tragedy comes shortly after the British tabloid The Sun, Rupert Murdoch’s flagship publication in the United Kingdom with two million daily readers, published a piece by columnist Katie Hopkins that suggested “gunships” be deployed to sink the boats migrants use to cross and discourage any attempt they make to reach Europe. In it, refugees were described as “cockroaches.”

It is unfortunately a reflection of the anti-immigration rhetoric taking hold across Europe as a cruel response to the pain, suffering and death we are witnesses to on a daily basis. Immigrant bashing parties are on the rise across the continent. Their momentum is reflected in official policy too. The EU has so far attempted to deal with the issue by either stopping the flow or “containing” the problem, if they do manage to arrive.

An example is the search and rescue operation called ‘Mare Nostrum’ — ‘Our Sea’ as the ancient Romans called the Med — which was rolled back last year. The Italian navy’s operation had rescued more than 100,000 people in 12 months. Italy stopped it after refusing to keep shouldering the burden of funding it alone, while the country is in crisis. Now, we are witnessing the hideous results of such decisions and inaction by the EU.

Following the tragedy on Sunday, the Greek government made an announcement that stated among other things: “The tragedy in Lampedusa demonstrates, once again, that the EU's policy on immigration has disastrous results and the urgent need for a fundamentally different approach to migration.”

But the problem isn’t new, and it’s roots go back many years. In 2003, EU countries signed the Dublin II treaty that, amongst other things, regulates the way immigrants arriving in the EU are handled. Under the treaty, an immigrant can only be processed in their country of arrival.

For most, that is Greece and Italy. And yet, little is being done to co-ordinate and fund joint action in the two countries. Mateo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, has made an urgent appeal for a European Summit this week to come up with a joint solution.

We cannot continue looking at refugees as a drain on our resources and a problem that can be 'detained' and 'stashed away' in the European South.

In Greece last week, the new Deputy Minister of Immigration Policy Tasia Christodoulopoulou announced a number of new initiatives: Immigrants will be taken to reception centers where refugees fleeing war zones and financial migrants will be separated; Syrians will be fast-tracked through the system and given legal documents to travel with; new facilities will be set up to provide medical care and shelter; and a proposal for equal distribution of migrants across EU countries will be brought before the relevant institutions in the next few weeks. 

Meeting need with cruelty

But Greece can hardly fund its own navy at the moment. The country is struggling to keep up with pensions, salaries and debt repayments as its bailout program has been frozen since last August. There is no way it could fund search-and-rescue operations of the scale required.

If we want to examine the attitudes that led us to this point though, we need to look in the opposition party, New Democracy, who was in power until last December. They have so far accused Syriza that they are “inviting immigrants to come to Greece” and that they are creating an “open border” country.

While in government, they opted for inhumane detention camps to hold immigrants in hellish conditions rather than help them, and didn’t even propose a plan to absorb further funding that the European Union had made available for Greece. It was their decision to close the land borders with Turkey (also an EU-funded project), which directly led people into taking the more dangerous sea routes.

It is unfortunately indicative of the attitude across Europe, one that meets need with cruelty. In the UK, where less than one hundred Syrian refugees have been taken in, the government claims that search-and-rescue missions encourage immigrants to attempt the cross.

Others suggest that informational campaigns about the conditions of travel and reception in the countries where immigrants come from, will deter them from doing so. This proposal translates to: “If we show them how cruel we are, they’ll stay away.” It is part of a narrative that suggests people aren’t really fleeing war zones, but are coming to Europe purely for financial benefit, a ridiculous idea peddled by right-wing nationalist parties such as the UK Independence Party.

Overhaul needed

The policy of discouraging people from trying to reach Europe isn’t working. Nikos Voutsis, the Greek Minister of Internal Affairs, suggested that as many as 1.6 million refugees are waiting in Turkey to enter Europe.

Europe instead needs to acknowledge that there is definitely a place for them here. There is also the moral obligation to help those fleeing wars the West has helped start and escalate, such as Libya’s.

A total overhaul of EU refugee policy is required. We should begin by scrapping Dublin II. This treaty creates inequalities within the EU itself, with border countries forced to deal with a problem that is much bigger than they can handle.

We also need a coordinated, well-funded search-and-rescue operation across the Med. There should also be emergency measures to allow immigrants to work legally across Europe, as to not fall victims to human traffickers after they arrive. Finally, there should be a mechanism to help them settle across the EU, not just border countries.

Localized initiatives, such as creating infrastructure in the tiny islands and towns that are the first points of arrival, are also important, but beside the point. It goes without saying that they are needed. But EU-wide initiatives are vital.

Maybe the most important thing though, is a shift in narrative. We cannot continue looking at refugees as a drain on our resources and a problem that can be “detained” and “stashed away” in the European South — itself in crisis due to failed (and failing) economic doctrines — or “trapped” in North Africa and Turkey.

Solidarity must extend to the point where we can guarantee that this aging, graying continent can provide a future for those who have suffered because of war and genocide, because if anything, they are giving us an economic future in return. It’s more than just an obligation: It’s an insult to our shared history if we fail to do our best for these people. 

Yiannis Baboulias is a journalist, writer and founding member of Precarious Europe. His work has been featured in The London Review of Books, The New Statesman, Vice, Open Democracy and The Guardian, among other outlets.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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