Syria conflict: Hundreds more desperate refugees could die at sea as Europe does little to help

Too few countries will offer a safe haven, forcing many to embark on perilous crossing of the Mediterranean

“Pathetically few” nations in Europe have stepped forward to offer a safe haven to desperate Syrian refugees, the European Union’s Home Affairs chief has told The Independent, raising the risk that many more could die at sea as they instead embark on perilous journeys to seek sanctuary.

Her warning came as the EU’s border agency, Frontex, reported a leap in the number of people detected entering Europe illegally this year, with Syrians making up the largest proportion. Up to half a million people are also believed to be massing in Libya and preparing to cross the Mediterranean, a route which claimed more than 700 lives last year.

Yet despite promises of action from EU leaders, who last October were united in their shock after at least 350 migrants died off the Italian coast, there are few signs that this summer will be different. Instead, agencies trying to save lives are having to contend with shrinking budgets, a political vacuum in Libya and xenophobic rhetoric from far-right parties which has seeped into government refugee policy.

Cecilia Malmstrom, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, said she hopes there will be more boats patrolling the Mediterranean this summer, and praised the efforts of the Italian coastguard, which earlier this week came ashore with 200 survivors and 17 bodies from the latest wreck. But she said the tragedies will not stop until people are given the chance to get to Europe safely and legally.

“Why do people embark on those boats? Because there are no legal ways to get to Europe. The immediate way to help people, especially people from Syria, would be to engage in resettlement,” she told The Independent. “Pathetically few countries take resettled refugees.”

EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom (AFP/Getty Images)
Ms Malmstrom said 14 European countries have so far refused to resettle any Syrians refugees, giving excuses ranging from financial hardship to pressure from far-right parties, whose support has surged in reaction to unemployment, austerity and the euro crisis.

“I would have hoped for stronger political leadership in all countries to stand up against those forces,” said Ms Malmstrom, adding that the European Commission had no power over governments’ migration policy and could not force nations to house the refugees.

“I can only appeal to the humanitarian side of people. These are people who really need support, and if you can take some of the most vulnerable children in a safe way to your country, they don’t have to embark on these rickety vessels and maybe drown,” she said.

She praised the British Government’s decision to take in 500 of the most vulnerable Syrians, which followed a campaign by The Independent. Other nations offering sanctuary include Sweden, Norway, Germany and France. But a list complied by the EU’s Eurostat agency showed no pledges from countries including Poland, Croatia, Estonia and Slovakia. While rehousing a few hundred refugees barely makes a dent when 2.7 million have fled the civil war, Ms Malmstrom said it is was “better than zero”.

The indications are that many more will be trying to reach Europe this summer. Frontex, which monitors and helps to patrol the EU land and sea borders, reported a 48 per cent jump in migrant arrivals between 2012 and 2013. The largest numbers came from Syria and Eritrea, both countries blighted by conflict and human rights abuses. So far this year, 42,000 people have been recorded entering the EU illegally – most of them in Italy – up from 12,400 in the same period last year.

Most crossings are attempted in the summer months when the water is calmer, and reports in the Italian press suggest that at least half a million people could be Libya poised to attempt the journey soon. This has prompted the Libyan government to demand more money from the EU, with one politician threatening that they could “facilitate” the migrants’ journeys. Ms Malmstrom called such statements “disgraceful”, but conceded that the lack of any stable government to work with in Libya was a huge problem.

Nations including Bulgaria, Italy and Malta have also pleaded for more EU funding to deal with increasing numbers of refugees, but governments are stretched. Gil Arias-Fernandez, deputy executive director of Frontex, said their budget for 2014 was actually slightly lower than in 2013.

Another problem plaguing Europe’s borders are accusations that security forces are expelling people before processing their asylum claim. These “push-backs” are illegal under international law, but human rights groups have accused Greece and Bulgaria of the practice.

“I am convinced that it is happening,” Ms Malmstrom said. But without any powers to go and investigate the claims, she said there was little the EU could do short of asking the member states for an explanation and threatening to cut funding.

This is a recurring problem for the European Commission. Because border control and migration are such toxic domestic issues, the EU has been granted few competencies in the area. Many of the people risking their lives are trying to get to Europe to work, and Ms Malmstrom is convinced that opening up more legal routes to apply for jobs in the EU would both stem the deaths at sea and economically benefit member states. She will be pushing this policy at a meeting of EU leaders in June, but she is not optimistic. “I wouldn’t say that they are overwhelmingly enthusiastic.”

In the short term, Ms Malmstrom is hoping that a new EU-wide information-sharing system known as Eurosur should help. In theory, governments and naval forces share intelligence and real-time satellite images to detect boats of migrants that might be at risk of sinking. But Mr Fernandez said that the system relies on member states uploading information quickly, and so far, “this does not fulfil this service”.

Judith Sunderland, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said it was absolutely essential that the EU get this fully operational immediately. “Without that commitment,” she warned, “the coming months could be the drowning season.”

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