Afew days ago I was sitting in Athens with an official from Médecins Sans Frontières discussing the migration crisis confronting Europe. She was showing me maps filled with swirling red arrows, denoting the most common and current routes across the Mediterranean. The tide of human flotsam washed up over the Greek islands sprinkled close to the borders with Turkey, then flowed through the shattered country towards safety and sanctuary in more prosperous places.
The journey these people take is one of fear, misery and violence. Not just crossing the treacherous waters that have already claimed thousands of lives this year. Some flop exhausted on uninhabited rocks. Then they might be jailed for months; I have met them crammed below ground in sweltering conditions inside Greek police cells. Others walk along rail lines for days through forests since buses will not carry them. One in three women endure sexual assault; in Albania, some are held hostage until families pay ransoms, while in Serbia even the police steal their money.
The charity worker’s phone bleeped constantly with a stream of calls and messages from migrants stranded on islands or pleading for help since her number had been posted online. The organisation is doing its best, with rescue boats and medical mercy missions. But this is an unfolding tragedy of epic proportions – and just as with the recent Ebola epidemic, the political response has been sluggish and largely shameful.
It is worth recalling that each migrant is a human being. A banal and obvious fact, but all too often forgotten in the foetid and fear-filled debate. Many are doing what you or I might in their circumstances, whether fleeing maniacs in the Middle East, brutality in the Horn of Africa, or simply escaping the grind of poverty in West Africa. And when people talk of the European Union being swamped, it is worth recalling that, as Syria and Iraq, collapse almost one in four people in Lebanon are now refugees, while Turkey will soon have two million refugees within its borders.
Britain, one of the world’s wealthiest countries and a place that played a role in the Middle East meltdown, has given sanctuary to 187 Syrians under the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme. On Friday, the Prime Minister grudgingly said we would take “a few hundred more”, but Downing Street hastily said this would mean no more than 1,000. Germany is providing 30,000 places; even Switzerland, a nation with one-eighth of our population, is offering refuge to 3,500 people.
In pictures: Migrant boat disaster
In pictures: Migrant boat disaster
1/10 Migrant boat disaster
Rescuers help children to disembark in the Sicilian harbor of Pozzallo, Italy
2/10 Migrant boat disaster
A child is carried by a rescue worker as he arrives with migrants on the boat at the Sicilian harbor of Pozzallo
3/10 Migrant boat disaster
A migrant is helped disembark in the Sicilian harbor of Pozzallo, Italy
4/10 Migrant boat disaster
A boat transporting migrants arrives in the port of Messina after a rescue operation at sea
5/10 Migrant boat disaster
Italian Coast Guard officers disembark the body of a dead migrant off the ship Bruno Gregoretti, in Valletta's Grand Harbour
6/10 Migrant boat disaster
Armed Forces of Malta personnel in protective clothing carry the body of a dead immigrant off Italian coastguard ship Bruno Gregoretti as surviving migrants watch in Senglea, in Valletta's Grand Harbour
7/10 Migrant boat disaster
Rescued migrants talk to a member of the Malta Order after a fishing boat carrying migrants capsized off the Libyan coast, is brought ashore along with 23 others retreived by the Italian Coast Guard vessel Bruno Gregoretti at Boiler Wharf, Senglea in Malta
8/10 Migrant boat disaster
Bodies of dead immigrants lie on the deck of the Italian coastguard ship Bruno Gregoretti in Senglea, in Valletta's Grand Harbour
9/10 Migrant boat disaster
Italian coastguard personnel in protective clothing carry the body of a dead immigrant off their ship Bruno Gregoretti in Senglea, in Valletta's Grand Harbour
10/10 Migrant boat disaster
Italian coastguard personnel in protective clothing stand on the deck of their ship 'Bruno Gregoretti', carrying dead immigrants on board, as it arrives in Senglea, in Valletta's Grand, Harbour
David Cameron told Parliament earlier this month that the majority of Mediterranean migrants are not asylum-seekers. In fact, as Amnesty International and others pointed out, more than half those making the lethal crossings last year were either Syrians or Eritreans, who are fleeing the most repressive state in Africa. This year, there has been a surge of Gambians, another nation under nasty despotism, along with significant numbers of Iraqis escaping Isis, and Somalians whose country was devastated by al-Shabaab.
The silence of opposition parties on this moral issue demeans them, with Labour seemingly content just to score minor political points over the Government’s crass decision to stop supporting search-and-rescue services last year. The Government argues that long-term aid can stem the flow of migrants, illustrating again how it has devolved foreign policy to the spendthrift Department for International Development. Yet aid should not go near a hideously governed nation such as Eritrea or Gambia; indeed, it is part of the wider problem in the way it undermines democracy, fuels conflict and fosters corruption.
There is a desperation to the measures suggested to halt the flow of human beings, such as destroying the boats of Libyan traffickers. They may be exploiting misery, they may horrifically overload boats, but the smugglers are ultimately responding to a demand – and if they are not there, people will find other ways to reach Europe. One commentator even suggested aid for small firms in Eritrea might help solve the crisis when the problem there is a regime enslaving much of its population. There needs to be a more rational response, more desire to help at least some of the refugees, and more honesty in the debate.
Yet it is curious how little discussion there is of an issue emerging among economists: the controversial idea of removing borders. There is an arrogance in our assumption that everyone would rush here from developing nations. When the US opened access to people from impoverished Micronesia, for example, fewer than 6 per cent of its people moved. Michael Clemens at the Centre for Global Development argues that Europe’s population would rise 10 per cent, with Germany hardest hit, and that there might be a significant economic boost. Without advocating such remedies, surely this is the sort of bold debate worth having, rather than futilely seeking to pull up the drawbridge on Fortress Europe?