EU’s moral obli­ga­tion as im­mi­grants keep com­ing

The China Post - - COMMENTARY -

This shouldn’t be hap­pen­ing — not in the 21st cen­tury, and cer­tainly not in Europe.

When you hear or read news that as many as 900 peo­ple died when their boat sank as they fled war and hunger in their home­land, you think of the Viet­namese “boat peo­ple” of the 1970s and 1980s — the hud­dled masses of refugees who crammed rick­ety boats and en­dured the hard­ship of weeks at sea to at­tempt a bet­ter life in an­other coun­try.

From 1975 to 1995, as many as two mil­lion peo­ple fled the strife in Viet­nam by var­i­ous means; about 800,000 of them es­caped by sea, lead­ing to an in­ter­na­tional hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis as coun­tries in Southeast Asia — Thai­land, Malaysia, In­done­sia, Sin­ga­pore and the Philip­pines — were faced with waves of hun­gry and des­per­ate refugees.

The Philip­pines, de­spite its limited re­sources, cared for the Viet­namese dis­pos­sessed that had ended up on its shores by es­tab­lish­ing the Philip­pine Refugee Pro­cess­ing Cen­ter in 1980 on the Bataan Penin­sula, which would even­tu­ally house some 18,000 Indochinese refugees.

While the “boat peo­ple” phe­nom­e­non has eased up in Southeast Asia, it has reap­peared, shock­ingly, on the doorstep of pro­gres­sive, wealthy and cos­mopoli­tan Europe.

For the past months and weeks, hun­dreds of refugees and mi­grants have per­ished on per­ilous jour­neys across the Mediter­ranean Sea as they tried to es­cape the tur­moil and poverty in their na­tive coun­tries for what they imag­ined to be more se­cure lives on Euro­pean soil.

The lat­est tragedy oc­curred off the Ital­ian is­land of Lampe­dusa last Sun­day, when a boat crammed with pas­sen­gers from Al­ge­ria, So­ma­lia, Sene­gal, Niger, Mali, Zam­bia, Ghana, Egypt and even Bangladesh cap­sized.

Some 700 peo­ple, most them packed in the boat’s lower lev­els, are be­lieved to have drowned as the boat sank. Ac­cord­ing to sur­vivors’ ac­counts, the smug­glers who had made a killing from get­ting refugees aboard for hefty fees had locked the doors, trap­ping the peo­ple in­side to their doom.

It’s ‘geno­cide’

It’s “geno­cide — noth­ing less than geno­cide, re­ally,” said Malta Prime Min­is­ter Joseph Mus­cat, in his de­nun­ci­a­tion of the hu­man traf­fick­ers.

But Loris de Filippi, pres­i­dent of the in­ter­na­tional non-par­ti­san med­i­cal or­ga­ni­za­tion Doc­tors With­out Bor­ders, had harsher words for lead­ers of the Euro­pean Union, who he be­lieves are en­gaged in half-hearted, dither­ing ef­forts de­spite some 10,000 mi­grants, mostly from Africa, head­ing to the con­ti­nent just last week and thou­sands more at risk of dy­ing on treach­er­ous voy­ages across the sea.

Up to 5 per­cent of the refugees who at­tempt to sail across the Mediter­ranean don’t make it, ac­cord­ing to the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees.

In ef­fect, “a mass grave is be­ing cre­ated in the Mediter­ranean Sea and Euro­pean poli­cies are re­spon­si­ble,” said De Filippi.

In­deed, the re­sponse so far by Euro­pean na­tions have been marked by a gen­eral un­will­ing­ness to as­sume full-scale re­spon­si­bil­ity for the hu­man­i­tar­ian cri­sis swamp­ing their bor­ders.

Italy has borne the brunt of the forced migration as the south­ern­most is­land of Lampe­dusa has be­come the pit stop for many refugees from Africa, the lat­est of them dis­placed by the fight­ing in Libya and Syria.

Ital­ian de­fense min­is­ter Roberta Pinotti has com­plained that the bur­den shouldn’t be Italy’s alone and must be shared by all of Europe. That call for a more co­or­di­nated, uni­fied re­sponse to the cri­sis has been met with dis­turb­ing in­dif­fer­ence in some quar­ters: The United King­dom, for in­stance, has been heav­ily crit­i­cized for its re­fusal to take part in search and res­cue op­er­a­tions for sur­vivors of Mediter­ranean ship­wrecks; it ar­gues that do­ing so would only en­cour­age more peo­ple to try il­le­gally im­mi­grat­ing to Europe.

But would that kind of non­ac­tion stem the tide? The refugees are flee­ing for their lives; they will brave the worst per­ils in or­der to sur­vive, and Europe hap­pens to be the near­est safe haven for them, whether its coun­tries want them or not. The con­ti­nent sim­ply can­not slam its doors and pre­tend that all is well even as the death toll be­yond its bor­ders climbs to even grim­mer fig­ures. Hu­man Rights Watch puts it more starkly: “The EU is stand­ing by with arms crossed while hun­dreds die off its shores.”

As in Southeast Asia two decades ago, Euro­pean na­tions are be­ing asked to act in a com­pas­sion­ate, hu­mane man­ner to­ward some of the world’s poor­est, most help­less hu­man be­ings. By the light of the En­light­en­ment to which the con­ti­nent gave birth and full flower, it has a moral obli­ga­tion to come to their care and res­cue. This is an ed­i­to­rial pub­lished on Philip­pine Daily Inquirer on Apr. 22.

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