Is anyone going to follow the Pope’s humanitarian lead on refugees asks Don Flynn
There was more than symbolism in the Pope’s action in taking twelve asylum seekers into his own gaff in the Vatican City in mid-April after a visit to the Greek island of Lesvos.
The Catholic pontiff might well have been alluding to the number of disciples who followed Jesus during the years of his earthly mission but he also seems to have been saying something about Europe’s failure to live up to even the standard to its own minimal promises to render assistance to a stricken people.
With just over one million people arriving on European shores as refugees from the conflicts which stretch in an arc from Afghanistan, through the Middle East and into the Horn and North Africa, the governments of the region are still bickering over plans for a proper and orderly resettlement. Of the 72,000 places which the European Commission put forward last year as a plan for Syrian refugees only 18,000 seem to be coming available. The deal concocted with Turkey in March to take back refugees who departed from that country seems for the moment to have checked the numbers arriving in Greece.
But there are worrying signs that this arrangement is having the effect of displacing asylum flows to the more dangerous Libya-Italy route across the central Mediterranean, with the inevitable risk of higher numbers of deaths at sea. At the time of writing there are reports of 400 lives being lost off the coast of North Africa after a smuggler boat floundered on the high seas.
The response from national governments seems as far from an adequate humanitarian response as ever. The entire western Balkans region has become a zone of containment, with armed police confronting refugee families with tear gas and baton assaults. The authorities in Greece have been compelled to the crossing points across the Aegean as ‘hotspots’ – effectively concentration camps that aim to keep the refugees in one place whilst their asylum applications are processed through a rough and ready process which lacks personal trained in the obligations of human rights conventions.
Beyond the government it feels like the Europe Union institutions are also pulling from policies which they put in place across two decades of common asylum policies. At the beginning of April the Commission issued a communication to the heads of European government and the European Parliament in which it set out its ideas to reform common EU asylum policies. It offered the view that existing arrangements were failing because they contained ‘pull’ factors which made Europe a more attractive destination for refugees than it should properly be seen.
The communication recommended scrapping the commitment to provide refugees with a route to a secure settled status in the country of refugee. Instead they will be permitted to remain only as long as the authorities felt that active threat of persecution and inhuman treatment presented itself. The UK currently grants residence permits to the people it has granted protection status to for an initial period of five years. If it is still unsafe to return people after that time the usual practice is to give the refugee permanent settlement which opens the door to full citizenship. If the Commission proposal is accepted across the EU then this is a door that will be slammed in people’s faces.
The strange thing is that Europe appears to believe that this harsher, more restrictive right to refugee protection will have the effect of making migration ore manageable. No one with expert knowledge of what is going on in the refugee sending regions believes that. The imperative need to escape the danger of states failing in a vast arc stretching from central Asia to the Mediterranean with contributory flows coming in from the Horn of Africa and Libya is driving the tide of human misery. The obstacles Europe is now creating to impede this movement only gives people more obstacles to climb over.
We can be absolutely sure that climb over is exactly what they will do and in thereby continue to encourage the impression that things are completely under of control and the authorities have totally lost their way.
This is the most dangerous outcome to the current phase of the refugee crisis. Europe still has better options to manage the crisis than the ones that are currently being used. Orderly channel that facilitate entry to the EU would make a big contribution to a reduction in the sense of panic that is driving people to the smuggler boats. A proper resettlement to bring to an end the vast concentrations of misery being built up at the border hotspots would also help.
Has anyone, other that the Pope and his fellow Christian clerics, got the courage to advocate for a humanitarian approach to this humanitarian crisis?
Don Flynn is Director Migrant Rights Network