The images of the mangled wooden boat, carrying asylum seekers from Iran and Iraq, crashing against waves and rocks off Australia’s Christmas Island were all over the internet last month. The world watched in horror as the men, women and children struggled against the elements. Around 48 people are thought to have died.
Thanks to the internet the whole world could look helplessly on and many watching will have recognised the desperation of the situation. The phenomenon of people risking death to build a better life in a new country is of our time. This is a truly global story, happening every day and on every continent.
Guards patrol the border between America and Mexico to keep out South American migrants. Yet they still come, and according to a recent Amnesty report, their journey is one of the most dangerous in the world, with death, rape and kidnapping all likely.
A library of books could be written about the enormous fear these migrants inspire in indigenous peoples. In 2008 violent riots erupted in South Africa because, among other reasons, hard-up locals resented the presence migrants from neighbouring countries.
Last year Arizona proposed a bill to crack down on ‘illegal’ immigrants. A crude clause giving police the right to arrest anyone who ‘looks’ illegal means Hispanic Americans are also likely to face harassment if the bill passes. Across the Atlantic, Nicolas Sarkozy deported more than 1,000 Roma from France because he didn’t like their camps. Several top EU officials cried foul but no one has stopped him yet.
Meanwhile, refugees in Malaysia, mostly from Burma, are probably some of the most vulnerable people in the world with no recourse to government help of any kind, campaigners told me when I was there last March.
The whole world is burning so why focus on Europe? After all the EU has to deal with very few of the world’s most desperate peoples. In 2009, the 27 EU member states processed just over 246,000 asylum applications. This is about 15% of the world’s refugees, who mostly go to poorer countries.
Well, two reasons, firstly the reality on the ground seems to magnify the worst of the world’s problems – boat deaths, people smuggling, unaccompanied minors, prison-like detention centres, hostile media and anti-immigrant politics. Secondly, the bureaucrats in Brussels appear to want to do something about it.
Yes, in the last few years there has been a rise in anti-immigration politics across Europe. And there does seem to be a palpable fear, in even the most liberal democracies, of a Europe overrun with (mostly Muslim) immigrants taking jobs and social benefits from locals.
But civil servants at the helm of EU politics speak an entirely different tone with every directive reminding member states of the shared commitment to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 protocol. The following excerpt is from a European Council report on meetings held at Tampere in 1999, where officials first agreed on the need for a unified approach to asylum and immigration:
“This freedom should not, however, be regarded as the exclusive preserve of the Union’s own citizens. Its very existence acts as a draw to many others world-wide who cannot enjoy the freedom Union citizens take for granted. It would be in contradiction with Europe’s traditions to deny such freedom to those whose circumstances lead them justifiably to seek access to our territory.”
OK, this statement was made more than 10 years ago. Since then hundreds of migrants have been subject to shoddy asylum and immigration systems across Europe. Indefinite detention, applications taking years to process and inhumane conditions in some detention centres are just some examples of this. The Europe Union is indeed as bad as the rest of the world at managing migrant flows despite its idealistic rhetoric. But the principles of freedom, justice and liberty are at the heart of even the most recent directives on asylum and immigration. There needs to be a tremendous leap in political will to enforce these values, but at least the blueprint is there.