Yesterday, in response to a series of tragedies involving migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, the EU issued a ten-point plan with a lot of emphasis on taking action against people smugglers and a range of further measures, such as fingerprinting migrants, that seem irrelevant to events. British Prime Minister David Cameron, whose government last year refused to back search and rescue plans on the grounds that they encouraged people to take risks, is now blaming “the human traffickers and the criminals that are running this trade.” The one group European politicians are not blaming, by and large, is themselves. Yet they, and the electorates they appease, bear most of the responsibility.
The reason for this is simple, and it is obvious. All European states are signatories to the Refugee Convention and that places obligations on them to offer sanctuary to people who arrive on their shores and who have a “well-founded fear” of persecution (on various grounds). Although politicians like to claim that their countries have a proud history of taking in the persecuted — as Cameron claimed in a speech last year — they now do everything in their power to make it as hard as possible for those seeking asylum to arrive on their territory. Devices such as heavy financial penalties on airlines and other carriers and ever tighter visa restrictions mean that people fleeing countries such as Syria and Eritrea simply cannot arrive in Europe by safe routes, and if they do so by using false documents they are often prosecuted and imprisoned. People from these countries make up a significant proportion of those trying to cross from Libya to Italy. Because people cannot travel via safe routes, they travel via dangerous ones, just as they do in other parts of the world. They put themselves in the hands of people smugglers and they take the risk of crossing the Mediterranean in flimsy boats. But the people smugglers, though no doubt unscrupulous criminals on the whole, are simply responding to a demand that European politicians and their electorates have created.
There is more. Whilst politicians from all of Europe are culpable, many those in northern Europe are particularly so. They have put in place a system in the EU that means that those people who do arrive and claim asylum must do so in the country they first enter. It is very hard to enter the UK, and most of those arriving turn up in countries such as Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain, southern European countries hardest hit by the economic crisis. Countries such as the UK can disclaim responsibility and have no incentive to agree to a fair system of burden sharing.
Fingers pointed at people-smugglers and “traffickers” are pointed in the wrong direction. Europeans need only look in the mirror to see those responsible.