It is so discouraging: We read about people drowning in the Mediterranean, we hear about the refugee catastrophe, and we gaze on TV right into the despairing faces of the victims, but we apparently can’t do anything about their situation.
We don’t want to simply shrug our shoulders, so we engage in moments of silence as well as vociferous protest marches. But we can’t come up with a solution. We ask ourselves why the crash of an airplane that killed 150 people holds our attention for days and almost immediately leads to new rules, yet more than 1,000 deaths in the Mediterranean fail to shake us up to the same degree.
Our conscience rebels and our humanitarian values are swallowed up by the ocean, but we are surrounded by dead-ends. It is heartbreaking.
European solidarity is useless as refugees from Africa arrive primarily on the coasts of Italy and Greece so, in logistical terms, it is they who are first faced with the task of responding to the migrant onrush.
It is not Europe that made them flee, but the incompetent and corrupt regimes of their home countries.
Setting up reception camps in the countries where they embark on their risky voyages ― the plan that the German government always takes out of the drawer when the human misery can no longer be ignored ― can only work when those countries have functioning state structures. Libya and Syria most certainly do not. Thus we’re told this proposal is also a dead end.
Europe likewise prevaricates over the idea of picking up the refugees at sea, because no one wants to make the crossing seem less risky by publicizing the use of rescue boats. What is more, Europe is scared of itself, because every politician knows that an increase in refugees is a highly sensitive subject ― especially for those on the right who oppose immigration.
And finally, the situation is not made easier by the fact that when we Europeans look at Africa, we are plagued by an inherently bad conscience. Even half a century after the end of European colonization, we are notorious for holding ourselves responsible for even the most indirect negative consequence arising from this uncomfortable history.
But a bad conscience is a bad counselor.
We should remember one thing: If millions of desperate Africans decide to leave their homes and families and, with the help of human traffickers, embark upon the dangerous journey to Europe, then it is not Europe that made them do it, but the incompetent and corrupt regimes of their home countries.
For decades now, these leaders have been unable to improve their citizens’ living conditions. They have simply watched as their best and brightest upped sticks and left the country. We are guilty if we do not help these refugees. But we are not guilty that they are coming.
Anything that makes it less attractive to flee to Europe is helpful.
Once we have got over our guilty consciences, we will be better able to develop a bold plan to help them. It could look like this: First, we have to end the human tragedy. This means the European Union should help Italy to revive the Mare Nostrum aid program, which allowed rescue ships to operate near the African coastline, rather than the new procedure that bans vessels from sailing beyond 30 nautical miles from the European coastline.
Second, Europe as a whole must act. The refugees do not view southern Italy as their final destination; they are only landing there. It is the joint responsibility of the E.U. countries to decide who proceeds further, who returns and how it is possible to convey people to their next destination.
Dimitris Avramopoulos is the E.U. commissioner for migration and refugee policies and has been eagerly publicizing how the commission’s interior and foreign ministers are engaged in consultations about the matter.
But up to now, Mr. Avramopoulos has not visited the site of the most recent catastrophe. There are concerns that the emotionally charged job of protecting refugees has been taken on by a bland bureaucrat.
Third, anything that makes it less attractive to flee to Europe is helpful. Reception camps in the countries where people begin their flight, along with a foreign policy that stabilizes these places rather than destroying them, can reduce the flow of refugees over the long term.
The problem, however, is that all of these suggestions require the opposite of discouragement -courage.
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