Opinion: An avoidable tragedy

By Salil Shetty, Secretary General at Amnesty International. 

Friday 11 October 2013 was a fateful day for Hassan Wahid. He had been living in Libya where he worked as a doctor. A Syrian, he was beaten up and received death threats after being accused of supporting the Assad regime. 

Hassan tried to go to Egypt, but the country did not allow Syrians in. He applied for a visa to Tunisia, but his application was turned down. Hassan applied for a visa to Malta, but that was also rejected. He had no choice but to embark, with his wife and four daughters, on a dangerous boat journey across the Mediterranean. 

Their boat was one of two shipwrecks that month, in which more than 500 people drowned. Hassan and his wife survived; their daughters have never been found.

Hassan and the tens of thousands who cross the Mediterranean each year know the dangers that await them. The risks they are compelled to take speak of their sheer desperation — as refugees fleeing conflict and persecution, or as migrants seeking a life with dignity.

The majority of those reaching Europe by sea are Syrians, Eritreans, Somalis and Afghans — countries where conflict and persecution are causing massive displacement. 

More than 2,500 people have died in the Mediterranean so far this year. Nearly one in every 50 people who attempted to reach the European Union from North Africa has died or disappeared at sea. It is a tragedy that can be avoided. 

In the aftermath of the World War II, world leaders came together to create the UN Refugee Convention, a legal instrument that has protected tens of millions of people from human rights abuses across the globe. But the Convention is no longer up to the task. 

The vast majority of the world’s refugees are – and will remain – in developing countries. Of more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees, only 130,000 have reached Europe. Lebanon, a country of four million people, is hosting 1.2 million refugees from Syria, a third of Lebanon’s pre-crisis population. 

The economic burden on host countries, the impact on local communities and above all the suffering of refugees in countries that are unable to fulfil their needs call for a global solution.

For Europe, this means, first and foremost, creating legal routes for a significant number of vulnerable refugees to reach the continent. Until last year, the European Union as a whole only resettled a few thousand refugees every year; this number has been boosted in 2014 by nearly 30,000 places offered by Germany for refugees from Syria. 

Other EU countries must follow Germany’s lead. The EU should resettle tens of thousands  of refugees every year, not only from Syria but wherever the need is greatest. Globally, richer countries should aim to resettle 5-10 per cent of refugees. 

That would still leave the vast majority of refugees in poorer countries close to conflict areas. Resettlement must also be supplemented by greater financial contributions to humanitarian assistance programmes. 

Secondly, the European Union must collectively invest in greater search and rescue capabilities to patrol the Mediterranean and promptly respond to boats in distress. In the past year, the Italian Navy has rescued well over 100,000 people, through operation Mare Nostrum. 

Italy has taken the lead but this should be a shared responsibility. The EU must continue, and build on, Mare Nostrum.

Thirdly, the EU must reform the current “Dublin system”, which assigns responsibility for processing asylum claims to the first EU country of entry, discouraging coastal states from carrying out search and rescue operations. A fairer responsibility sharing mechanism is required.

The international community has recognized that issues like the financial crisis, climate change and the Ebola epidemic can only be solved with concerted global action. With the number of those forcibly displaced globally exceeding 50 million people for the first time since World War II, this too has become a global crisis. The EU, and other countries, must take their share of the responsibility to solve it.

We are calling on world leaders to make a courageous choice: to place the values of humanity, solidarity and compassion before political interest in order to stem the yearly tragedy in the Mediterranean. We are calling on them to stand by people who are risking their lives to escape conflict, persecution and poverty in the face of the forces of isolationism and xenophobia. 

The choices are clear, and so are the consequences.