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Europe can help boat people by sorting out own asylum system

By Memphis Barker

Published 22/04/2015

Safe passage: a rescued refugee
Safe passage: a rescued refugee

Boating season, as it is known, has only just begun. The weather is warmer, the sea calmer and conditions easier for a ship to cross the Mediterranean. While most of Europe starts to think of holidays, of flip-flops and beach umbrellas, residents in southern Italy and across the foot of the continent will be gritting their teeth: down south, summer brings bodies.

Of the 900 or so passengers who were capsized on Saturday, only 28 have been recovered alive. A conservative death toll of 700 would make this the most statistically shocking disaster yet.

Europe has no excuse. What may look like simple repetition of a familiar story - migrants die at sea - is, in fact, a more complicated and less accidental sequel.

This year, the chances of migrants surviving a shipwreck are much smaller than last. Roughly the same number has tried the journey; but the number of deaths in the first quarter of 2015 has risen tenfold, to around 1,500.

Traffickers are no more ruthless, the journey no more perilous. But when a ship goes down today, help is far from at hand. The EU search-and-rescue service, which recently took over from the Italian version - Mare Nostrum - hugs the Italian coast, and runs on a third of the cost.

Triton, as this threadbare operation is known, was born of a myth - one peddled by politicians who either were not thinking hard enough, or simply did not care. Hardly any migrants knew about Mare Nostrum, let alone based their decision to seek a life in Europe on its existence.

Yet in justifying the decision to drop the excellent Italian operation, a UK foreign office minister referred to it as an "unintended pull factor" that, by encouraging those on the shores of Libya to think the voyage less risky, had led to "more tragic and unnecessary deaths".

The idea that Europe's leaders bear little responsibility for the "boat people" and, in deciding to do little about them, are only reflecting the wishes of the populations they serve, is, of course, a myth. Much as David Cameron might like the electorate to forget, both Britain and France helped create the roiling instability in Libya, in a 2011 intervention that the "man on the street" is unlikely to have backed, had he cared about it at all.

Even states that have joined none of the past decade's adventures in the Middle East owe something, by virtue of their EU membership. Share the boon, share the burden.

A co-ordinated response - apportioning refugees across Europe - might not be easy to implement, but it would end the farce of current regulations that require asylum-seekers to stick where they first make land.

It is possible, though few believe it now, for countries to consider the common good: Germany pledged 20,000 resettlement places to Syrian refugees; Sweden is similarly generous.

I am with Elly Schlein, the Italian MEP, who said on the Today programme that leaders of the more stingy member states should not always "run after" what the people think, but be brave enough to fulfil their "moral and legal" obligations.

Another myth that gets repeated after every disaster in the Mediterranean is that Europe can somehow stop the migration problem "at source".

We should know by now that neither the West's mandarins nor its armies can do much to fix failing states and so encourage people to stay in them.

Too often the suggestion that solutions can be found "over there" - across the sea - shifts the debate away from what should be done over here.

By all means look to improve matters in Somalia and Iraq, or crack down on people-traffickers, but where Europe can really make a difference is in its own rescue services and its own asylum system. So that is where to start.

Belfast Telegraph

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