With over 1,800 migrant deaths so far in 2015, migrants and the reasons they choose to come to Europe in the first place need to be reassessed. Despite the rhetoric of our politicians, it is not true that people are crossing the Mediterranean purely for economic reasons – their needs are more pressing and immediate and their reasons more rooted in politics and insecurity. We cannot continue to allow governments to dehumanise migrants and represent them as a threat or simply an inconvenience. They are people who have been pushed to risk everything.
One of the starkest effects of migrant crossings, and one which is only half told at sea, is that families are being torn apart by the need to pursue greater freedom and stability. The vast majority of migrants are men who have been forced to leave their families behind in unstable and dangerous countries. They are trying to adjust the long-term future of their families, but the unfortunate short-term burden of this is placed on women and children who are thrust into the roles of providers and workers. Children who need to work to help support their families are denied an education and put into situations where abuse and exploitation are rife.
There are increasing reports of children found making the journey across the Mediterranean to Europe unaccompanied. Save the Children estimates that 700 children have made the crossing this year, 200 of them unaccompanied. These children are exceptionally vulnerable and hundreds of miles from their families. Their lives, and often their family’s life savings, are in the hands of the corrupt gangs arranging the crossings. The Guardian recently described sub-Saharan African countries as “bleeding their youth to Europe” – the number of young men making the crossing is symptomatic of an impending demographic crisis across Africa. With fewer working-age men, families risk being poorer and the economic conditions which play a role in the current crisis will only be exacerbated.
Reasons to flee
Justine Greening, Secretary of State for International Development, announced that the UK would increase foreign aid to encourage people to remain in countries such as Syria. This assumes that all migrants are risking their lives for economic reasons and ignores the real issues forcing people from their homes:
- Environment: The world is warming and those with the power to change things are still in a state of denial. Increasingly arid conditions across much of the developing world is leading to droughts and poor harvests. Food scarcity is only going to increase as a reason for migration.
- Politics: In many states across Africa and the Middle East there are severe restrictions on freedoms. Political turbulence can restrict freedom of speech and many people are looking to escape threatening authoritarian regimes.
- Conflict: War displaces vast numbers of people who are forced to seek shelter, food and safety away from their home. Living in a war-torn country exacts a high psychological toll on people, especially children. The echoes of war are deeply felt for decades following conflict and contributes to instability and uncertainty.
Looking at the three countries with the highest number of refugees trying to reach Europe (Eritrea, Syria and Afghanistan) the combined impact of these effects become clear:
- Eritrea: Eritrea is effectively a closed country where torture is commonplace. Many of the migrants fleeing to Europe over the past few months have cited the dismal conditions, threats to their safety, lack of basic freedoms and the much-feared and notoriously brutal military conscription as their reasons for leaving. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that over 5% of the Eritrean population has left in the past 10 years. The situation is compounded by the absence of NGOs and charities who are unable to gain access to Eritrea and would be unlikely to operate unhindered even if they could.
- Syria: The on-going civil war in Syria has displaced one million people and, without a joined-up international effort to help, people have been forced to undertake a dangerous journey to Libya before attempting the perilous Mediterranean crossing. Four million people still in Syria are in immediate need of humanitarian aid and it is these people who are the most likely to attempt travel to Europe.
- Afghanistan: Afghanistan is still deeply unstable with issues of gender inequality and political violence. Children are among the worst affected, especially following a decision taken by many European countries a few years ago (including the UK) to deport unaccompanied children and send them back to Afghanistan.
The politics of fear would have us believe that Europe is the destination of choice for most of the world’s refugee population, but this is far from true. There are currently 10 million people in the world classed as refugees, just over a quarter of these headed to Pakistan. In comparison to a refugee population of 2.6 million in Pakistan, the equivalent population in the UK is 193,000 or around 2% of the global total. France and Germany combined account for around 8% of global refugees and these three countries are the final destination for the vast majority of people heading to Europe.
To assume migration is purely about economics and jobs is short-sighted. Finding ways of preventing this movement of people and tying them with the chains of Western economic imperialism perpetuates the narrative of centuries without addressing the inequality that lies in its wake. Ultimately, people – not threats to our economy, but people – are washing up on the shores of Europe (and Australia, Thailand and Malaysia); people who have been driven to risk their lives and leave their families with no guarantee of seeing them again.
Displaced people are always a sign of separated families and orphaned and abandoned children, factors which perpetuate the cycle of poverty and increase the likelihood that more will attempt the same uncertain journey in the future. The developed world needs to cast aside automatic economic and political rhetoric that seeks to criminalise poverty and misfortune and adopt a strategy based on compassion and with an open awareness of all the issues which have created this situation and our responsibility to address a problem partially of our own making.
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