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Monday, April 4, 2016

Desperation for a better future

Muhammad Zamir


Illegal migration winds its way through the Bay of Bengal to the Indian Ocean or pursues its own path from the North African and Levant shoreline to the south and south-eastern coasts of Europe. Death continues to cast its own shadow on this trail. This dynamics has also reflected the illegal connotations of human trafficking as desperate people from several countries in Africa, Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan and South Asia try to escape from the confines of mortal danger, poverty and uncertainty to cherished social and economic freedom. Erosion of law and order, internal conflict and lack of good governance are acting as catalytic factors in this carnage.
In the recent past, earlier on in 2015, we have watched with horror the unfolding in the print and electronic media the revelation of death camps and illegal detention centers that littered the southern jungles of Thailand and the northern coastal parameter of Malaysia. We were overcome with guilt as we received reports of large numbers of families with young children adrift in the ocean, stuck in over-crowded boats, short of drinking water and food.
Some action was taken by the United Nations, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia to control the deteriorating situation by arranging urgent and emergency action aimed at rescuing these unfortunate refugees, providing them emergency shelter and then arranging the repatriation of most of them to their own countries. Legal action of sorts was also taken in Thailand and Malaysia against those found guilty in being part of this human trafficking process.
A meeting was also convened under the leadership of the United Nations, participated by countries from the affected regions in South Asia and South East Asia and representatives from developed countries. Least common denominators were identified within this matrix of illegal immigration to facilitate the creation of a security paradigm that could stop such human trafficking activity in the coastal waters as well as the high seas through cooperation between the respective Navies and Coast Guards of this affected region.
We now have the latest developments in the Mediterranean region comprising of North Africa, the Levant and parts of former Eastern Europe. The media over the last two weeks have been highlighting reports of illegal migrants trying to enter Europe through rickety boats, ramshackle steamers, containers and trucks. Despite best efforts by Navies and Coast Guard vessels from Italy, France and Greece, there have been unfortunate occurrences that have resulted in deaths from drowning or from suffocation. In this context the photograph of deceased infant Aylan Shenu trying to escape war-ravaged Syria with his parents, washed ashore on a section of the Turkish beach has grabbed attention of the world and reiterated the human aspect of the disaster.
The on-going conflict situation in Syria, Iraq, uncertainties near the Turkish border, in Jordan, in Egypt, in Yemen, Lebanon and Libya are not only creating security uncertainties but also affecting economic opportunities. This is resulting in expatriates, people of African origin seeking work in Northern Africa and Syrian refugees trying to reach safer destinations with their families. Earlier, such illegal migratory efforts did not include family members, particularly children. It is different now. Affected people are now trying to enter Europe through the crossing of the Mediterranean or overland along with their family members.
Unfortunately disasters within this dynamics are now resulting in the deaths of family members and children. The incident on 27 August off the Libyan coast near Zuwara was a case in point. Two boats carrying migrant refugee families sank resulting in the death of 24 Bangladeshis. According to the IOM at least 2373 have died this year till the end of August while trying to reach Europe from the North African shore. Those being rescued at sea and then transported to refugee shelters in Italy and Greece are being given shelter and some minimum assistance. Those below the age of twelve are however being given additional care.
This clarity in treatment of potential refugees and migrants seeking to enter Europe through Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and then Hungary is however creating controversy. Land routes to Western European countries particularly Germany are attracting international attention because of the lack of uniformity in the treatment of those crossing international borders. The situation has become critical particularly because of Hungary’s interpretation of the Dublin Regulation where prospective refugees have to seek asylum at the first point of entry. Nevertheless, trains and buses from Hungary are carrying thousands of refugees to Austria and Germany.
 Austrian authorities also appear to have given up on trying applying European Union rules by filtering out refugees who had already claimed asylum in Hungary. Austrian authorities appear to have also taken a more pro-active approach and the general opinion was expressed through 20,000 people taking part in a pro-refugee rally in Vienna days after 71 refugees were found dead in a truck on an Austrian highway. The protesters marched through the streets of the Austrian capital, holding candles and banners with slogans reading "Human Rights are Borderless" and "No Person is Illegal".
The humanitarian and political crisis is now testing the survival of both Europe's open-border regime and its asylum rules. Most of the refugees arriving in Vienna's railway station are immediately racing to board trains heading on to Germany. Policemen, according to the electronic media are looking on passively, preferring not to intervene. It has also been reported that refugees have been cheering and chanting "Germany, thank you!" as they find welcome signs held up by local people at Munich Central Station.
 It may be mentioned that Germany has already taken in more asylum seekers than any other European Union country. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has also called for the other 27 EU nations to do more to help deal with this year's influx of refugees and to provide fair and respectful treatment of people fleeing from conflicts mainly in the Middle East and Africa. In this context she has highlighted that European Union states "must share the responsibility for refugees seeking asylum," arguing that failing them will betray the bloc's values.
 Germany has also said that it will accept all asylum applications from Syrians instead of sending them back to the first EU state they entered, as required by EU law. The country is expecting a record 800,000 people to apply for asylum this year - that is more than the entire EU combined in 2014. This pro-active approach on the part of Germany has however been maligned by some analysts who, instead of seeing the human aspect have been claiming that Germany is taking this course of action because they have a rapidly ageing population and will need an additional 1.8 million qualified workers by 2020.
It may also be noted here that Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland have all sought to block the influx of refugees in other different ways. Controversy has been created by the idea voiced by Slovakia on giving priority to refugees who are Christian. Merkel most fortunately has been openly critical of this approach and has correctly pointed out that Europe's values are based on the dignity of every individual, and that saying Muslims are not wanted "can't be right".
Consistent with expectations, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has called on European countries to do more to protect the lives of refugees making perilous journeys to reach EU states. In this regard, he has urged governments for a determined collective response and to create safe and legal routes into the continent to avoid further human tragedies and to act “with humanity and compassion, in accordance with their international obligations."
Some EU countries including Austria are now calling for refugee quotas for each of the EU's 28 members. In this context, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker has already announced that details are being worked out to absorb over the coming year 1, 60,000 refugees by relocating them in different European countries. The asylum seekers would distributed under a formula that looks at each EU country’s size, economic strength and past history of taking migrants. Germany is expected to take 26.2% of the total, France 20% and Spain 12.4%. The next biggest intakes will be from Poland, Netherlands, Romania, Belgium and Sweden. The European Union is however going to draw a distinction between ‘relocation’ and ‘resettlement’.
It would be worthwhile to point out here that at this sensitive time media coverage has differed between European countries on this issue. Britain and France, which over the decades have accepted hundreds of thousands of immigrants are now facing a backlash from the rise of  right-wing, anti-immigrant parties and continuing relatively high unemployment rates. Consequently, some sections of the print media in these countries are stressing that these refugees fleeing cash-strapped or war-torn countries - pose a threat to both resources and security.
British Prime Minister Cameron has however, due to growing pressure within the Parliament announced that Britain would settle up to 20,000 Syrian refugees over the duration of this current Parliament. It may be noted here that Reuters reported on 7 September that Britain has so far taken in only 216 Syrian refugees under a UN-backed relocation scheme. In the last few years that have also granted asylum to about 5,000 other Syrians who managed to make their own way to Britain.
We are witnessing an unprecedented crisis in Europe right now. There are many challenges that will have to be overcome. Nevertheless, at this juncture one can only hope that reason, human rights, right to life and compassion will prevail over narrow national security considerations. Europe will need a unified approach and no status quo dysfunctional squabbling.
There is a possibility that a special meeting will be held on the sidelines of the next UN General Assembly Session towards the end of this month to address this evolving crisis. The European Union is also thinking of convening an emergency meeting around the same time to discuss a joint plan of action.


 (Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance, can be reached at )

Source:  The Independent, 22 September 2015

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