EU’s moral obligation as immigrants keep coming
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 — 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.