The Irish Times view on Mediterranean migrant crisis: Fairness essential

Europeans may be relieved by falling numbers reaching continent but ought to be ashamed

On September 2nd, 2015, the body of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach. Alan, his mother, Rehana, and five-year-old brother, Ghalib, drowned together just 4km from the shore while attempting to cross the Mediterranean to seek refuge in Europe Photograph: Demir/AFP/Getty

In recent years the Mediterranean has become a sea of sorrows and drownings as thousands have perished trying to find a better life in Europe.

Latest figures show the numbers dying in 2018 are well down on previous years, as are the numbers succeeding in crossing. Six died each day last year while 139,300 made the journey.

Far harsher regimes preventing travel from Libya to Italy account for most of the reduction, along with a much more inhospitable policy by Italy's new populist coalition in the last eight months.

Europeans may be relieved by such figures but they ought to be ashamed of them. If it was understandable that major efforts would be made to limit the flow of refugees and asylum seekers to this continent after the million and a half who came from Syria in 2015, it was not inevitable that the response should have been as harsh as it has turned out to be.


A larger and more generous vision of this global question badly needs to be formulated in Europe

The flat refusal of Hungary, Poland and other central and eastern member-states of the European Union to accept a quota regime is one well-known reason for that.

Their attitude has blocked efforts to change the existing regime whereby most obligations land on the states initially receiving those seeking refuge. Understandably Italy, Greece, Spain and Malta complain bitterly about the unfair burden-sharing and then say others will not share it.

Italy's radical and brutal closing off of access is the most conspicuous. Matteo Salvini, leader of the far right Northern League in the new coalition, uses the issue to bolster political support.

In a further coarsening of self-serving rhetoric, he now attacks France for colonial and neocolonial policies in Africa that encourage people to come to Europe.

As the Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras told a meeting of EU Mediterranean states in Cyprus this week, if the EU does not resolve the economic and social problems faced by the southern EU countries due to the influx of migrants, the EU as a whole will be exposed to "isolation, nationalism, racism and xenophobia".

These efforts to tackle the fair distribution of those seeking refuge must continue. They should be accompanied by a reinforced effort to cooperate with neighbouring countries in North Africa and the Middle East, and in sub-Saharan Africa to help stem the flow of people.

That requires much greater engagement in development policies throughout these regions and cannot be limited to the existing approach, relying on treating the nearest southern states like Libya as human buffers and jailers of first resort.

In fact most of those fleeing Middle East conflicts go to neighbouring states like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey and the same is even more true in sub-Saharan Africa. A larger and more generous vision of this global question badly needs to be formulated in Europe.