Mediterranean crisis reflects escalating migration worldwide

‘In just three days, more people land on the tiny islands in eastern Greece than claimed asylum in Ireland in all of 2014’

‘There is rightly much pride in the life-saving work of the LÉ Eithne and its crew.’ Above, migrants wait to  disembark from the Irish Naval ship  LÉ Eithne at the Catania harbour,  on June 16th, 2015. Photograph: AP Photo/Carmelo Imbesi

‘There is rightly much pride in the life-saving work of the LÉ Eithne and its crew.’ Above, migrants wait to disembark from the Irish Naval ship LÉ Eithne at the Catania harbour, on June 16th, 2015. Photograph: AP Photo/Carmelo Imbesi

 

Footage of Irish naval personnel rescuing women, men and children in peril at sea has brought the crisis in the Mediterranean closer to home. There is rightly much pride in the life-saving work of the LÉ Eithne and its crew. Search-and-rescue operations are the immediate priority. However, it is clear that a comprehensive response to a humanitarian tragedy of this scale is urgently required.

The international response must be guided by an understanding of why people are taking such dangerous journeys. For the majority of them, the reasons are war, conflict and persecution.

Fifteen conflicts have erupted or reignited in the past five years, displacing tens of millions. Some 59.5 million people around the world are now forcibly displaced, according to the annual UNHCR Global Trends report released today by our office. That is the highest number UNHCR has ever recorded and 8.3 million more than last year.

It is not just the scale of the crisis that is dramatic. It is the rate at which it is accelerating. About 42,500 people became refugees or asylum seekers or were internally displaced each day in 2014, a fourfold increase since 2010. Syria is the major new source, with that country’s conflict forcing more than 11 million people to flee their homes since 2011.But the beginning of new conflicts in South Sudan, Ukraine and Iraq and the failure to resolve old ones in countries such as Afghanistan, DR Congo and Somalia has not helped either.

Of the 103,000 people who crossed the Mediterranean so far this year, 33 per cent are Syrian, 10 per cent Afghan and 9 per cent Somali, according to UNHCR statistics. These are vulnerable people who have fled the unimaginable horror that is a consequence of modern warfare. They are looking for refuge from the terror they and their children have faced.

But if they are looking for safety, why undertake a dangerous sea crossing and why seek to travel to Europe? The reality is the vast majority of refugees do seek refuge in neighbouring countries. More than 219,000 refugees and migrants crossed the Mediterranean Sea during 2014. However, across the world, 2.9 million people crossed borders and became refugees in the same year.

Pressure

As significant as current population movements on Europe’s southern shores appear, they are just part of a wider trend that is affecting poorer countries disproportionately. Some 86 per cent of refugees in the world live in developing countries, according to 2015 Global Trends, placing increasing pressure on infrastructure systems already struggling to find school places for children and clean water for all.

Nowhere is this more starkly highlighted than in the makeshift shelters and poorly heated apartment blocks that house Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The size of Leinster, with a population similar to Ireland’s, a quarter of Lebanon’s population are now Syrian refugees.

After years in exile, their savings are long depleted and growing numbers are resorting to begging, survival sex and child labour. Of the 400,000 school-age Syrian children in Lebanon, only about a quarter are enrolled in formal education.

The Lebanese, like people in host countries such as Jordan and elsewhere, have opened their homes and hearts to Syrian refugees. But they cannot cope with the numbers any longer. It is time for richer countries to shoulder the responsibility with them.

That is why the European Commission’s proposals to address the refugee crisis represent something of a breakthrough. The initial proposal is for an EU-wide resettlement scheme to offer 20,000 places to vulnerable refugees and an emergency relocation from Italy and Grece of 40,000 asylum seekers likely to be in need of international protection. UNHCR supports both initiatives, which we believe will provide for a fair distribution of refugees among EU member states.

Ireland has responded to the first proposal by pledging additional resettlement places for 300 refugees. This brings to 520 the number of refugees to be resettled into Ireland this year and next. This decision was welcomed at the highest level of the UN by secretary general Ban Ki-moon during his visit to Ireland last month. Increased resettlement numbers and other forms of admission such as student, work and family reunification visas will help prevent dangerous sea crossings and ease some of the pressure felt by host countries already struggling with numbers.

The second proposal on the relocation of asylum seekers from Italy and Greece to other EU member states is still being discussed. After a key meeting earlier this week, Minister for Justice and Equality Frances Fitzgerald indicated that while there were difficulties and concerns with the proposals, the Irish authorities wanted to participate in finding solutions to the crisis and to support member states under pressure. While the Minister indicated a decision by the State on the proposals would follow when the detail was set out, the openness to engage at this stage is positive.

Struggle

Decisions on the European Commission’s proposal are due to take place at the meeting of EU leaders at the European Council next week. There are suggestions that decisions on some proposals may not be made until September.

However, the time to respond is now, as countries in southern Europe continue to struggle with the numbers arriving on their shores.

Every day, 600 refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq arrive on Lesvos and other Greek islands alone. That means that in just three days, more people land on the tiny islands in eastern Greece than claimed asylum in Ireland in all of 2014. UNHCR hopes that EU leaders will find a way to support refugees and their colleagues in southern Europe who are struggling to respond to the scale of the crisis.

And in Ireland, given current global trends, it is crucial that the long-planned reform of asylum law be implemented and adequately resourced as soon as possible, so that refugees arriving in Ireland can be recognised as such at the earliest possible stage.

Sophie Magennis is head of office at UNHCR Ireland

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