The refugee crisis in Europe – What can be done?

More than 2,000 people have died so far this year trying to make the crossing into Europe while up to 200,000 others have been rescued. The numbers keep adding up, creating a worsening refugee crisis in Europe which is testing the EU’s ability to act collectively.

We have all seen the deeply distressing news coverage – the images of bodies washed ashore and the stories of people suffocated to death in the back of smugglers’ lorries. What is happening now, right now, even as you read this, is the worst humanitarian crisis to hit Europe since the Second World War.

We need a coordinated, compassionate and well-funded EU response to this crisis, and the UK must play a full role in such a response. What we have instead are large numbers of people trapped on the borders as Member States try to shift responsibility or move them elsewhere, where they are someone else’s problem.

The numbers involved

According to Frontex, the EU’s migration monitoring service, last month more than 100,000 migrants reached EU borders, bringing the total number of people seeking refuge in the EU to more than half a million.

While there has been a lot of emphasis in the British press about those trapped at Calais, this amounts to as little as 1% of those who have arrived in Europe so far this year. It is estimated that between 2,000 and 5,000 migrants have reached Calais, a figure of between 1% and 2.5% of the estimated 200,000 who have reached Italy and Greece so far.

Indeed, the figure of 200,000 who have arrived so far this year is so small that it is just 0.027% of Europe’s total population of 740 million. To put this in context, the Lebanon with a population of around 4.5 million and around 100 times smaller than the EU, is playing host to 1.2 million Syrian refugees. As the world’s wealthiest continent, Europe should be able to handle such a comparatively small influx of people in desperate need.

The difference between a migrant and a refugee

The term refugee is well defined under international law. Under the UN’s 1951 Refugee Convention and a whole host of EU laws, European Member States must offer refuge or other types of protection to asylum-seekers who can demonstrate that they are fleeing war or persecution.

In its manifesto for the 2015 election, the Labour Party included a commitment “to ensure Britain continues its proud history of providing refuge for those fleeing persecution by upholding our international obligations, including working with the UN to support vulnerable refugees from Syria.”

Those fleeing the Assad regime in Syria should be classified as refugees. For the moment they are “asylum seekers” – those who go to another country and apply for protection there as a refugee. Asylum seekers cannot, under international law, be returned to a place where they are likely to face torture or persecution. They must be offered protection in Europe.

These people need our help. And looking at the response of people in the North West and the rest of England, I am truly proud to be British. Whatever about the response of the British Government, the British people have spoken out and pledged their help to those who need it.

Evacuation during World War II

The evacuation of British cities at the beginning of World War II was the largest and most concentrated mass movement of people in Britain’s history. It is also a part of our collective consciousness; it feeds into our sense of what it is to be British.

Starting in September 1939, adults and children were moved from towns and cities deemed to be at risk from enemy bombers to the countryside where it was felt they would be safer. Homes up and down the country opened their doors to welcome in the evacuees. The system wasn’t always perfect but by the end around 3,000,000 were evacuated and remained away from their homes until the end of the war when they were able to return.

This wasn’t always easy for either the evacuees or their hosts but the Great British spirit dominated and help was given to those who needed it.

Europe needs a similar spirit of cooperation right now. We must act in a united fashion and shoulder the burden together. But it needn’t be all about burden sharing either. Among those coming to Europe now are the future doctors and nurses who will look after us when we are ill, they are the workers who will build our economies and the teachers in our schools. Every person who is brought into Europe has the potential to help make this continent truly great, to enrich all of our lives.

Because that is what happens to refugees in Europe: people come to Europe and they make better lives for themselves and their neighbours, those from their home countries and the friends they make here. The European spirit, much like the British, is one of triumph and assistance – helping those in need because we know we are stronger together.

Across the UK, many local councils are now looking at what they can do to help. People are waking up to the fact that migration and asylum are separate issues. Whatever people may feel about migration, they understand that what is happening now is a crisis and they want Britain to do our bit to help refugees. 

In Liverpool, Mayor Joe Anderson has announced the city’s intention to play its part. This week he announced the Liverpool administration is willing to take in 100 refugees and has called on the Home Office to support councils with the necessary resources.

The EU response

In his State of the EU address today, Commission Jean-Claude President Juncker said that Europe is seen by those fleeing Islamic State in the Middle East as “a place of hope, a haven of stability”.

“Europe is a continent where almost everyone has been a refugee,” Commissioner Juncker said. “We Europeans should know and should never forget why giving refuge and complying with the fundamental rights is so important.”

The European Commission plans to resettle around 160,000 migrants from Italy, Greece and Hungary around the rest of the continent. However, this plan is being met by opposition from different Member States.

While most Member States have agreed to voluntarily accept some of the migrants who have arrived in Europe after crossing the Mediterranean, the UK will opt out of any mandatory quotas because it is not a member of the Schengen open borders arrangement which covers many EU states.

Tensions are high among the Member States and this week Belgium demanded cuts to EU funding for member states that refuse to take part in the scheme.

What is happening at the moment is unprecedented and will require a completely new European approach, something that can only be achieved if all 28 Member States come together and agree on a plan of action. No one Member State can do this alone, nor should they have to. Working together, the EU can provide safety and protection to those in need, but this crisis is also an opportunity, a chance to demonstrate European cooperation, what we can achieve together and how effective we are as a bloc.

Labour MEPs’ response

Labour MEPs have been campaigning for national leaders across the EU to step up to their responsibilities and act now. That means agreeing an EU-wide solution which prioritises:

  • Legal routes to combat people smuggling – such as an expansion of the scheme currently used by the UK government to accept refugees from the region
  • Proper EU funding and resourcing of Mediterranean search and rescue – while we must act to prevent people making these treacherous journeys in the first place, it is simply inhumane to allow people to drown at sea
  • Renewed action on people smuggling
  • Adequate EU funding and to ensure food, shelter and care in refugee camps
  • A proper system of reception centres fit for processing asylum claims
  • A coordinated EU-wide mechanism to resettle some of the refugees and ease the burden on countries such as Italy and Greece
  • Every EU member state – including the UK – playing a part

COeNjQ3XAAQ6v_i (1)MEPs have written to David Cameron (you can read the letter on the right) condemning his Government’s refusal to take even a single refugee under the proposed European scheme.

We have a moral duty to act; we must help these people fleeing torture and persecution. EU governments cannot allow the current chaos and tragedy to continue.

Labour MEPs are clear: it is time to act.