Deaths on our doorstep: a European disgrace - Refugee Council
news  |  April 15, 2015

Deaths on our doorstep: a European disgrace

We are deeply saddened by reports that 400 people are feared dead after their boat capsized while they attempted to reach Europe.

But we’re not shocked. According to UNHCR, 900 people have drowned attempting this perilous crossing so far this year, compared to 17 during the same time period last year.

This spike in deaths has coincided with a unanimous decision by European leaders, including our own Prime Minister, that any search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean Sea aimed at saving people’s lives would only encourage others to come.

So they refused to fund the Italian search and rescue mission, Mare Nostrum, and it was withdrawn last year due to lack of funds.

Simply put; our leaders thought that letting people drown on Europe’s doorstep would serve as a warning to others; don’t come here, we won’t save you.

Now we’re seeing the consequences of Europe’s Let Them Drown policy in action. People are drowning while European leaders impassively watch on.

There are two main reasons we’re seeing the numbers of arrivals start to go up again; the first is that the weather is getting a bit better, so people think they have a better chance of making it, but it’s also because the reasons people are forced to board these boats in the first place haven’t gone away.

The world is still in the grip of a global refugee crisis. If anything, it’s getting worse, not better. The numbers of people fleeing violence and war is now higher than it has ever been since the end of World War II. 

Against this gloomy backdrop, the reality is that there is a lack of safe and legal routes for refugees to access safety in Europe. Until this problem is tackled, tragically, people will continue to die on Europe’s doorstep.

There’s an urgent need for a search and rescue operation in the Mediterranean. We know that saves lives; Italy’s Mare Nostrum saved 150,000 last year.

The EU’s Triton operation took over from Mare Nostrum operation last November, but is exclusively focused on border control; it does not have a search and rescue function. The majority of the operations this month have been performed by the Italian coastguard and navy and some commercial ships in international waters, rather than the European-backed Triton.

We also need to develop other solutions so that people aren’t forced to board dodgy boats and put their lives in the hands of people smugglers. At the moment we’re leaving them with no other choice.

European countries, including Britain, make it very, very difficult for people fleeing conflict and persecution to find safety.

Take Syrians, for example. For a Syrian try to find protection in Britain; there is virtually no safe and legal way of getting here. There is no asylum visa.

The number of resettlement places offered in most European countries has been woeful. Just 143 people have been resettled in the UK, and we make it as difficult as possible for people who are trying to reunite with their loved ones who may already be in Britain.

The perverse thing is, if a Syrian or Eritrean is lucky enough to make it to Britain, they will likely receive refugee status. The Government recognises they need our protection, but we make them risk their lives to get it.

We must resettle more people; bringing them directly and safely to European countries.

We must also make it easier for people to reunite with their loved ones; by allowing refugees in Britain and other countries to bring their relatives to live with them in safety.

In the long term, European countries need to work together to come up with a solution and the focus has to be on saving lives.

The answer isn’t to build the walls of fortress Europe higher, it’s to provide more safe and legal channels for people to access protection.