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Forget the ‘war on smuggling’, we need to be helping refugees in need

The crisis in the Mediterranean, which has led to more than 1,700 deaths already this year, has evoked an immediate response from European political leaders. Yet the EU response fundamentally and wilfully misunderstands the underlying causes. It has focused increasingly on tackling smuggling networks, reinforcing border control and deportation. Somehow European politicians have managed to turn a human tragedy into an opportunity to further reinforce migration control policies, rather than engage in meaningful international cooperation to address the real causes of the problem.

The deaths in the Mediterranean have two main causes. First, the abolition in November 2014 of the successful Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue programme, which saved more than 100,000 lives last year, immediately led to a reduction in the number of rescues and an increase in the number of deaths.

Second, and most importantly, there is a global displacement crisis. We know that in last week’s tragedy – as with wider data on this year’s Mediterranean crossings – a growing proportion are coming from refugee-producing countries such as Syria, Eritrea and Somalia. These people are fleeing conflict and persecution. Of course, others are coming from relatively stable countries such as Senegal and Mali, but the majority now are almost certainly refugees.

Around the world there are currently more displaced people than at any time since the second world war. More than 50 million people are refugees or internally displaced, and the current international refugee regime is being stretched to its absolute limits. For example, there are nine million displaced Syrians, of whom three million are refugees.

The overwhelming majority are in neighbouring countries such as Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. A quarter of Lebanon’s entire population is now made up of Syrian refugees. Yet the capacity of these states is limited. Faced with this influx, Jordan and Lebanon have closed their borders to new arrivals. But these people have to go somewhere to seek protection and, with few alternatives, increasing numbers are making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Europe.

In this context, there are no easy solutions. Yet European politicians are taking the easy option of failing to understand the wider world of which Europe is a part. From early last week, Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi, focused on proclaiming a “war on trafficking”. Politicians across Europe followed suit. Yet this fails to recognise that smuggling does not cause migration; it responds to an underlying demand. Criminalising the smugglers serves as a convenient scapegoat, but it cannot solve the problem. Rather like a “war on drugs”, it will simply displace the problem, increase prices, introduce ever less scrupulous market entrants and make the journey more perilous.

The proposals to emerge from last week’s emergency EU meetings in Luxembourg and Brussels have been similarly disappointing. They have focused on destroying the vessels of smugglers and committing to higher levels of rapid deportation, presumably to unstable and unsafe transit countries such as Libya. The humanitarian provisions of the plans have been vague and problematic. The EU has committed to triple funding for Operation Triton. Yet unlike the abolished Mare Nostrum, that operation has never had a search-and-rescue focus. As the head of the EU border agency, Frontex, has explained, it is primarily a border security operation with little capacity to save lives.

The problem is far broader than a border control issue; it goes to the heart of the way in which we collectively protect and assist refugees and displaced populations. The global refugee regime, based on the 1951 Convention on the Status of Refugees, creates an obligation on states to protect and assist refugees who reach their territory, yet around the world its core principles are under threat. This is not only the case in Europe. Australia’s Pacific Solution, which prevents “boat people” arriving, is an abdication of legal responsibility. In the aftermath of the Garissa attacks, Kenya recently announced a proposal to close the Dadaab camps, home to hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees. In both the global north and south, the right of refugees to seek asylum is being eroded.

Yet the rights of refugees to seek asylum have to be sacrosanct. We collectively created the global refugee regime in the aftermath of the second world war because Europe recognised the absolute obligation to ensure that people facing persecution would have access to effective protection on the territory of another state. As it did in the early 1950s, courageous European leadership is again needed to repair that international system and reinforce fundamental human rights standards, within and beyond the EU.

There is a fundamental inequality in the existing global refugee regime. It creates an obligation on states to protect those refugees who arrive on the territory of a state (“asylum”), but it provides few clear obligations to support refugees who are on the territory of other states (“burden-sharing”). This means that inevitably states closest to refugee-producing countries take on a disproportionate responsibility for refugees. This inequality is a problem within Europe, but it also exists on a global scale. It is the reason why more than 80% of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries.

In order to enable this system to function – and sustain the willingness of countries like Jordan, Lebanon and Kenya to host refugees – a serious ongoing commitment to refugee protection needs to be maintained by countries outside regions of origin. This is even more important when “we” arguably have a moral responsibility – through our foreign policies – for the destabilisation of countries such as Syria and Libya.

One way of protecting refugees and engaging in international cooperation is through resettlement. Many countries, such as the US, Canada and Australia, have a history of resettling refugees directly from camps and urban areas. Europe does not generally have that tradition; in response to the Syrian crisis, resettlement numbers have been comparatively tiny. The proposal for a “voluntary” European resettlement scheme for 5,000 refugees to emerge at last week’s Brussels meeting is absurd against the backdrop of three million Syrian refugees.

There are instructive lessons from history on the kinds of international cooperation that could reinforce the refugee regime and make a difference in the Mediterranean. After the end of the Vietnam war in 1975, hundreds of thousands of Indochinese “boat people” crossed territorial waters from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia towards south-east Asian host states such as Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, the Philippines and Hong Kong. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the host states, facing an influx, pushed many of the boats back into the water and people drowned. Like today, there was a public response to images of people drowning on television and in newspapers, but addressing the issue took political leadership and large-scale international cooperation.

In 1989, under UNHCR leadership, a Comprehensive Plan of Action (CPA) was agreed for Indochinese refugees. It was based on an international agreement for sharing responsibility. The receiving countries in south-east Asia agreed to keep their borders open, engage in search-and-rescue operations and provide reception to the boat people.

However, they did so based on two sets of commitments from other states. First, a coalition of governments – the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the European states – committed to resettle all those who were judged to be refugees. Second, alternative and humane solutions, including return and alternative, legal immigration channels were found for those who were not refugees in need of international protection. The plan led to millions being resettled and the most immediate humanitarian challenge was addressed.

The Indochinese response was not perfect and it is not a perfect analogy to the contemporary Mediterranean, but it highlights the need for a broader framework based on international cooperation and responsibility-sharing.

The elements of a solution to the contemporary crisis have to be at a number of different levels. Above all, though, solutions have to come from a reaffirmation of the need to uphold asylum and refugee protection, and to see these as a shared global responsibility. If there is to be a silver lining to the current crisis, it stems from the opportunity for political leadership to reframe how refugees are seen by the public and to come up with creative solutions for refugees on a global scale. But that will take political courage and leadership.