The number of refugees to Europe this year alone stands at some 456,000, double last year which was a staggering 215,000. The majority of those fleeing across the Mediterranean have a valid asylum claim under the 1951 Geneva Convention, some 72% according to the UNHCR – as do all Syrian refugees without exception. There is no safe part of Damascus, Aleppo or anywhere else to flee to in Syria. Large parts of Iraq are little better.
- You can read Lucie Boase’s account of her trip to the Calais jungle here. The sketch is by her sister Dilly Boase, a painter and illustrator based in South London. You can see more of her work at www.dillyb.com
The Society of Black Lawyers and the Association of Muslim Lawyers conducted a legal fact-finding mission to Sicily and Lampedusa in June this year which was followed by a visit to Calais in September. We interviewed some 92 refugees as well as a range of local and national NGOs and statutory agencies. We will be hosting a major international conference on December 12 with Jeremy Corbyn invited as the keynote speaker together with the Mayor of Catania, Sicily.
The reason for the dramatic increase of refugees was the result of an amalgamation of crises from the ongoing conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Afghanistan and Somali. We have reached the lowest point in an isolationist approach on refugees with Europe and the USA believing that military intervention can occur without consequences being felt directly in the Western world. The flow of refugees is directly linked to the scale of Western intervention in the Middle East as well as the failure to act in Syria which has had disastrous consequences.
The promises of rebuilding Libya after the removal of Gaddafi dissolved leaving the country awash with weapons and militia as well as a fledgling democracy that had no chance of success. The split between Libya Dawn in Tripoli and the Western-backed House of Representatives in Benghazi requires urgent unification so as to rebuild the country, provide peace and stem the flow of refugees.
The failure of the US State Department and the European Union to adequately fund the refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey has led many Syrian families left in the camps to see Europe as the destination of necessity for their future.
The response to this global geopolitical failure of the West and the regional powers is sadly predictable. The far right in Europe has always played on the idea of creating fortress Europe. Politicians across the political spectrum in France, Germany and the UK have deliberately linked freedom of movement in the EU with the conflated issue of refugees and migrants. Migrants, refugees and the influx of EU citizens are easy targets for the far right to exploit for electoral gains. This has led to a surrender by the mainstream parties who have each attempted to outpace the other in their anti immigrant and refugee stance. The impact of this genuine and enormous refugee crisis has caught politicians between the rock of their non-interventionist stance and a hard place of their own creation.
Into this morally bankrupt political arena have stepped the ghosts of thousands of desperate and drowned refugees. The loss of 2,500 lives this year alone, and the drowning of 800 of the island of Lampedusa led to the belated adoption of a greater search-and-rescue mission, far less effective than the Italian navy and coastguard’s ‘Mare Nostrum’ initiative. The recently announced EU Frontex patrols to interdict and seize trafficker ships in international waters 12 miles from the 2,000-mile long Libyan coast will neither capture traffickers nor will it deter those desperate to escape extortion, imprisonment and violence in Libya.
Having witnessed first hand the work of the Italian NGOs, state and regional authorities in Sicily and Lampedusa, it stands in stark contrast to the response of the Socialist government in France. The French authorities in Calais have provided minimal support to the 5,000 refugees left to survive on one meal a day with no heating or lighting in a shanty town they have built themselves.
The response of ordinary citizens in many EU countries is well ahead of the political leadership in Europe and the US, with direct offers of accommodation from all over the EU. German citizens have been leading the way and doing what Sicilians, and Greeks have been doing quietly in recent years. Lampedusa, an island nine miles long, only 26 miles from the coast of Libya has been harbouring refugees since 2007 when the agreement to turn back migrants made with president Gaddafi ended.
Five immediate solutions are urgently required therefore:
- To provide proper funding for the existing refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan – so shouldering the burden of the 3.9 million refugees already there;
- For NATO and the USAF to create no fly zones for areas of safety in northern Syria and Iraq, (with or without the agreement of Putin), to protect the civilian populations in Syria and Iraq, where the Kurdish and other moderate land forces opposed to Assad can patrol more safely;
- To agree a EU quota to take at least 500,000 refugees each year for the next three years, both form the existing camps in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon and from those already crossing Europe with economic penalties for those EU States such as Hungary who fail to comply;
- To re draft the Schengen Treaty, and Dublin 3 Treaty to provide for emergency assistance to triggered by the levels of the current crisis;
- To open urgent diplomatic negotiations between Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, Egypt and other regional powers to bring an end to the Sunni versus Shia proxy war that is being fought in Syria and Iraq. This may even countenance a negotiated exit for Assad.
Peter is a barrister and chair of the Society of Black Lawyers