Europe’s migrant crisis: Pope Francis leads by example

While Germany and Sweden struggle to deliver on the hospitality they have shown, other states refuse to co-operate, and the UK and France are shamefully inactive

 

By saying to the refugees he met in Lesbos “you are not alone”, and by describing their Greek hosts as “guardians of humanity”, Pope Francis has eloquently expressed the universal values that apply to the question. By returning to Rome with three Syrian migrant families, he made concrete his statement that Europe has a “responsibility to welcome” them. And by refusing to choose between Christian and Muslim families he insisted they “are all sons of God”.

Such statements of solidarity and universality are all too rare in Europe’s discourse on this humanitarian tragedy. Pope Francis’s expression of them is an act of moral and spiritual leadership that can make a real difference. They are especially relevant for states and voters who want to close borders, refuse to accept refugees, and assert spurious civilisational differences. That is a counsel of rejection and despair that cannot work and will deepen discord. The statement from Somalia’s government last night that 200 or more Somalis may have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to cross illegally to Europe, serves to underline the urgency of the crisis.

The agreement reached between the European Union and Turkey last month is based on a realistic recognition that the refugee question requires large-scale action involving reciprocal commitments and responsibilities. It doubles EU humanitarian aid to Turkey, which hosts 2.5 million refugees from Syria’s civil war. Refugees who have been brought illegally from there by traffickers to Greece will be returned. The EU accepts the need to provide refuge for equivalent numbers and then for a continuing flow of refugees to be distributed among the member states in a fair way. Turkey gains access to Schengen visas and reopens EU accession negotiation.

This deal promises to end illegal trafficking and substitute a legal flow of refugees to Europe, based on strengthened external borders. It has a simple but crude logic, driven by political necessity and calculated interests.

But it can only be defended in ethical and operational terms if it is genuinely reciprocal and respects individual rights. The idea of replacing the harsh trek of refugees to Europe with an orderly process is appealing only if delivered on. There is little sign of that happening. While Germany and Sweden struggle to deliver on the hospitality they have shown and central and eastern states refuse to co-operate, the UK and France are shamefully inactive and European Commission plans for a fair quota system are blocked.

Critics of the agreement will be validated if this does not change. One way it should do so is for the EU to spend far more on tackling the issues involved by issuing bonds to finance the caring and settling of refugees, helping frontline states, and funding its political and diplomatic efforts to end neighbourhood conflicts.

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