Sunday

20th Jan 2019

Opinion

Life or death: entering fortress Europe

  • Many people try to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa (Photo: Antonio Amendola)

Z. is a Syrian refugee I met four years ago. Just before the Syrian civil war started, he managed to escape the country where he had been a lawyer and human rights activist.

The Bashar regime’s security forces imprisoned many of his friends. After his escape from Syria, Z. ended up in Brussels.

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  • Undocumented migrants make for an informal 20th commune in Brussels, one of the biggest in the city. (Photo: Augustin Palokaj)

The story of how Z. escaped Syria and his subsequent journey to Belgium, which he told me in fluent English, was something you would not wish on your worst enemy. The Belgian government was less impressed and initially refused to give him papers.

There are many like Z. in Europe. Brussels has 19 communes, but there is an unofficial ‘20th commune’ – that of undocumented migrants – which is probably the biggest in the city.

’Flooded’ by refugees

People all over Europe believe that most of the refugees of the world are coming to their countries. This belief is often fuelled by politicians, who depict migrants as abusing social security benefits and taking locals’ jobs.

But it is worth looking at the facts.

Since World War II, there has never been as many refugees in the world. For the first time in history, the main reason is not war. It is climate change. According to the UN, there are currently over 51 million people forcibly displaced.

In 2013, 17 million people were refugees. Half of the world’s refugees in 2013 were children. In Europe there were only 435,385 applications for asylum in the 28 European member states in 2013. In other words, the wealthiest part of the world received merely 2.5 percent of the refugees.

According to the most recent UN data, there are about 3.9 million Syrian refugees. Some 3.7 million of these are in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq.

Between spring 2011, when the Syrian civil war erupted, and December 2014, only 5.6 percent or 217,000 Syrians took refuge in Europe.

Getting to Europe has become the most dangerous journey in the world for refugees. Migrant Offshore Aid Station estimates that 2015 will be the deadliest year so far. According to research, at least 40,000 refugees have died since 2000 while trying to make their way to Europe.

Depite these figures, the EU cut funding for Mare Nostrum, a search-and-rescue operation for refugees in the Mediterranean Sea, and replaced it with the Triton operation, which is not focused on search-and-rescue and which does not operate in international waters. The EU has invested around €2 billion to protect its borders and keep refugees out.

Migrants, the future of Europe

It is time the EU admits that its migration policies have failed and takes action in order to avoid more tragedies.

Traditional mainstream parties need to change their discourse on migration – and stop imitating the rhetoric of the far-right.

In addition, the migration debate should be based on correct statistics. Too often politicians throw out incorrect or out-of-context figures. Citizens have the right to a public debate that is accurate.

With some of the wealthiest countries in the world, the EU should shoulder its responsibility and host more refugees.

The thinking on how to approach migration also needs a fundamental change. The millions of euros spent on the security of borders, could be used to establish legal trajectories to Europe.

Part of this new thinking would be a general acknowledgement that Europe needs migrants. Its ageing workforces need replacing. Meanwhile studies have shown that migrants pay out more in taxes than they receive in state benefits.

Two years ago Z. received permission to stay and work in Belgium. He has since learned Dutch and French, has a full-time job, and is volunteering during his spare time.

Refugees need solidarity today. Tomorrow they will be the ones contributing to a better future for Europe. All they need is opportunities. To start with, they need to be given the chance to live.

Bleri Lleshi is Brussels based political philosopher and author of various books. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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