By Bridget Walker
The Mediterranean Sea, which was the cradle of modern European civilisation, has become a vast graveyard. In recent years thousands of men, women and children have been embarking in fragile boats to make the journey from the North African coast to southern Europe. The boats are overcrowded and controlled by unscrupulous people smugglers. Many of the refugees have drowned at sea, and those who arrive on the shores of Europe find little in the way of welcome.
They are part of a global movement of people. The UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, estimates that in 2014 one person in 122 had been forced from home by war, violence or repression. What are the causes of this forced migration, what happens to those who take such perilous journeys?
It is a changing situation in Europe. The Italian navy’s humanitarian operation which rescued 166,000 people in 2014 has been replaced by a smaller operation focusing on patrolling borders close to land rather than saving lives at sea. So more people are dying. By mid-May this year 1,750 were known to have died at sea, a 20 fold increase on the same period in 2014. Nonetheless by mid June around 100,000 people had reached Italy and Greece. Of these nearly three quarters come from four countries: Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and Syria. When life at home became too difficult and dangerous they moved to neighbouring countries. Eritreans tried to settle in Sudan, the Sudanese fled to Libya. They have been pushed ever further by repression and war, and risked one of the most lethal sea crossings in the search for safety.
But safe arrival on shore is no guarantee. Italy is overwhelmed by the numbers. Greece has serious economic difficulties and is even less able to support the thousands arriving. So the refugees try to move across European borders which should be open but are increasingly closed to them. One destination is France and the squatter settlements outside Calais where they hope to get to England. I visited the camps in April with a French friend who volunteers there. I have worked in refugee camps in Sudan and seen others in Asia and the Middle East, but this was the most shocking experience. The authorities have provided a site – a former rubbish dump – but with no provision of water and sanitation, no shelter. In effect they have created a slum. The voluntary organisations are challenging the officials to take responsibility. There were about 1,000 men and 35 women when we were there. Two months later there are more than 3,000 people in need. By the end of the summer there may be as many as 6.000.
In their summit meetings the leaders of the European Union reinforce what the peace activist, Diana Francis, has called the geopolitics of control. A major humanitarian tragedy is being reframed as a an issue of regional and national security. Europe has become a fortress. A symbol of this is the fence being built around the port of Calais to prevent refugees reaching the lorries and boats. Britain will contribute up to 15 million Euros – the UK border has moved south across the channel.
Asylum and immigration are political hot potatoes, and the popular press spreads negative myths. The desperate flight from war, persecution and poverty is described as an invasion. Yet the numbers are small compared with the millions of refugees around the world. Those who take irregular routes into Europe are described as illegals, yet it is virtually impossible for them to reach Europe both safely and legally. EU leaders talk of targeting the smugglers and destroying their boats. But as long as there is violence and conflict people will continue to flee, and prices which are already far higher than the cost of a regular passage will rise again.
In Britain the official attitude seems to be keep them out or, if they manage to get here, lock them up in detention centres where people do not know whether they will be held for days, months or years.
What’s to be done? There have been many responses from concerned citizens, the voluntary sector and the churches. A friend newly returned from a dancing holiday on the Greek island of Lesbos described the islanders’ response to the arrival of several hundred asylum seekers. The local authority forbade the population to help them and said the refugees must walk to the main city where they would be shipped to Athens. The islanders defied the authorities and took collective action, gathering a large convoy of private vehicles to carry the refugees to their destination.
At the European parliament organisations spread a carpet with the names of the 17,306 people known to have drowned in the Mediterranean over the past ten years. In order to get into the parliament building the MPs had to walk on this carpet, a powerful symbol of trampling people underfoot.
Voluntary organisations and individuals in Britain provide shelter, support and legal advice to destitute asylum seekers. In an expression of cross border solidarity the homeless charity Emmaus sends lorries from Britain every month with supplies for those camping outside Calais. Many people visit those detained in British immigration removal centres, and advocate for an end to detention through a national coalition.
The European churches have united in producing a document recommending the development of safe and legal paths to protection in the EU and offering practical suggestions.
There have been numerous petitions on the internet as part of a broader campaign aimed at persuading the Prime Minister that it is in his and the government’s interest to contribute to a co-ordinated European response to the humanitarian crisis. And there is work behind the scenes with sympathetic parliamentarians. The crisis is not insurmountable – there are historical precedents. Globally more than one and half million Vietnamese were resettled after the war. Nearly half a million refugees from the conflicts in former Yugoslavia were resettled in Europe.
Perhaps what is needed most is the ability to see borders as bridges not fences, to see the courage, resilience and gifts that refugees bring, rather than to fear that they will take jobs and houses. This requires political leadership and generosity of vision. The struggle will go on.
Bridget Walker is a founding member of the ACTION network. She lives in Oxford, UK and belongs to the national Quaker Asylum and Refugee Network, and the local campaign to Close Campsfield and End Immigration Detention.