Shine A Light

Theresa May, this is not a ‘crisis of migration’, but a crisis of inhumanity

In a carefully coded speech, the UK Prime Minister categorises people on the move as “threats that we face” alongside war and global terrorism.

Simon Parker
24 September 2016

Survivors and relatives of the victims of the Lampedusa shipwrecks of 3 & 11 October 2013 mark the second anniversary of the tragedy (S. Parker)

The so-called Mediterranean migration crisis has focussed Western attention on the desperate lengths that people fleeing war, persecution and extreme poverty will go to in search of a chance of survival. But those arriving in Europe since the start of 2015 still only account for less than 2.5% of the world’s forcibly displaced population, and only 1 in 500 of the population of the European Union. Of the 4.8 million refugees who have fled Syria since the conflict began, the United Kingdom has agreed to take just 4,000 vulnerable persons per year over five years from refugee camps in the countries surrounding Syria. But many UK local authorities, particularly in London, are refusing to offer sanctuary to any refugees under the vulnerable persons scheme.

The Lord Dubs Amendment in the 2016 Immigration Act allowing for an unspecified number of unaccompanied children to be brought to the UK at the request of local authorities has yet to see any progress according to Citizens UK. Meanwhile tragedies continue unabated including that of a 14-year-old Afghan boy who, desperate to join his family in Britain and having lost all hope of legal re-unification, fell from the roof of a lorry and died in a hit and run accident in Calais. His was the 13th fatality at the port this year where UK taxpayers’ money is contributing to the construction of a 4m high barrier that will extend a further 1km along the approach road to the ferry terminal with the single purpose of preventing “illegal entry” into the UK.

50 million children

As delegates gathered for the first United Nations General Assembly Summit on Large Scale Movements of Refugees and Migrants in New York last week, UNICEF drew attention to the fact that of the 50 million children around the world who have been uprooted from their homes, 28 million have been forced to flee as a result of conflicts. UNICEF’s new report, Uprooted: The Growing Crisis for Migrant and Refugee Children highlights the fact that children make up a growing and disproportionate number of the world’s forcibly displaced people, which is estimated to have reached 65 million — equivalent to the population of the entire United Kingdom.

When Prime Minister Theresa May addressed the UN Summit on Large Scale Movements of Refugees and Migrants last week (20 September) she framed “mass movements of people” as “threats” to be countered, alongside war, global terrorism and climate change.  She sidestepped the New York Declaration’s commitment to “achieving a more equitable sharing of the burden and responsibility for hosting and supporting the world’s refugees” by insisting that the burden of hosting refugees should be entirely shouldered by the first “safe country” into which a refugee or migrant stepped — and preferably one a long way away from the white cliffs of Dover. 

In order to ensure better “managed migration”, Prime Minister May insisted, “we need to improve the ways we distinguish between refugees fleeing persecution and economic migrants” by ensuring “the existing convention and protocol are properly applied to provide protection to refugees and reduce the incentives for economic migrants to use illegal routes”. This distinction is of little interest to smugglers for whom the absence of safe and legal routes has been a lucrative gold mine since the “war on terror” in Afghanistan and Iraq gave way to the human catastrophe of the Libyan and Syrian conflicts, while violence, persecution and poverty continues to draw forced migrants from the Horn of Africa and Sub-Saharan Africa—an increasing number of whom are child victims of trafficking (more than 1 in 4 of all cases according to the International Office of Migration (IOM)).

'Porta di Lampedusa-Porta D'Europa'

'Porta di Lampedusa-Porta D'Europa' memorial by Mimmo Paladino (Simon Parker)

Against the backdrop of a UN convulsed with the seemingly intractable tragedy of the war in Syria, Theresa May’s was a carefully coded speech sprinkled with encouraging notes about rejecting “isolationism and xenophobia” (as if the recent Brexit vote had nothing to do with that same toxic cocktail) and tackling “modern slavery”, while committing billions of dollars in humanitarian assistance to support education provision and to combat gender violence. Yet the consistent underlying theme of May’s address was the insistence that the forcibly displaced can only call on our collective consciences remotely. For the West to act otherwise is to encourage the spread of organised crime, terrorism and racist and xenophobic extremism.

It is surprising therefore that even in the face of growing opposition from German voters and rising support for anti-immigrant parties Theresa May’s fellow conservative, Chancellor Angela Merkel (who grew up in the shadow of the Berlin Wall) has pledged to admit a further 300,000 refugees this year on top of the 1 million welcomed in 2015.

Merkel’s aversion to state security barriers is clearly not shared by fellow leaders of the European Union whose member states continue to build border fences and to deny safe and legal routes for those seeking to escape from North Africa and Turkey to Europe. Instead the European Union has favoured refugee ‘hold back’ and maritime interdiction agreements in return for financial donations to countries such as Turkey and most recently Libya, which have been heavily criticised by Amnesty International for failing to respect fundamental human rights and the rights of refugees.

These agreements have done nothing to stop the rising death toll in the Mediterranean, however. Despite a relative fall in the numbers attempting the Mediterranean crossing, the International Office of Migration reported 37% more migrant deaths during the first half of 2016 compared with the same period in 2015.

Dangerous inflatables

Part of the explanation relates to changing smuggler practices and a shift to smaller plastic dinghies on the central Mediterranean route that are unsuitable for long journeys, with several craft often leaving from different parts of the Libyan coast at the same time, making search and rescue very challenging. The increasing use of dangerous inflatables is also a direct consequence of the switch in the European Union’s priorities after the end of the ‘Mare Nostrum’ operation in 2014 from search and rescue to anti-smuggling and anti-trafficking. 

EUNAVFOR-MED is the EU’s military based task force whose core mandate is “to undertake systematic efforts to identify, capture and dispose of vessels and enabling assets used or suspected of being used by migrant smugglers or traffickers”. In practice, EUNAVFOR-MED vessels are also regularly deployed to undertake search and rescue activities when requested to do so, but an increasing number of rescues are carried out by non-state humanitarian organisations including MSF and most recently Save the Children with the assistance of the Italian Coast Guard as well as by commercial vessels less equipped to undertake search and rescue.

The consequence of blocking safe passage has not been to halt the flow, but rather to force refugees to attempt riskier routes that are not routinely patrolled by rescue vessels. On Friday 23 September, reports confirmed that an overcrowded refugee boat had sunk off the coast of Egypt claiming at least 300 lives including 10 women and a baby. As many as 150 other bodies are thought to have either sunk with the vessel or have been washed away and may never be recovered. This fresh tragedy will evoke bitter memories for the survivors of the notorious shipwreck off the coast of Lampedusa on 3 October 2013, which claimed 368 lives. The survivors and the families of the victims are gathering once again on the tiny Sicilian island to commemorate the anniversary which has become more famous for its tireless search and rescue activity and its EU funded ‘hotspot’ detention centre – evocatively captured in Gianfranco Rosi’s haunting film ‘Fire at Sea’ – than for its limpid waters and award winning beaches.

While constituting only a small fraction of the world’s displaced population, the Mediterranean region accounted for 78% of all the recorded migrant deaths and disappearances globally in 2016. This unusually risky transit zone presents a particular danger to children who make up 28% of all forced migrants heading for Europe. Unfortunately 3-year old Alan Kurdi’s death was far from an isolated case, with children constituting 30% of all fatalities at sea in 2015.

Forced labour, prostitution

However, as I argued in a recent contribution to UNICEF’s Research Watch special Children on the Move, the problems that migrant children face do not end when they reach the relative safety of Europe’s shore. Many children who have become separated from their families or who are forced to travel alone are subject to mistreatment and exploitation, while some are trafficked into forced labour or prostitution. NGO officials and volunteers we interviewed for our Economic and Social Research Council’s Mediterranean Migration Research Programme project – Precarious Trajectories: Understanding the Human Cost of the Migrant Crisis in the Central Mediterranean * also pointed to the increasing psychological trauma that children face as a consequence of being held in EU designated ‘hotspot’ reception centres. 

Children can be confined for several weeks or months in inadequate conditions, often with adults or in mixed sex accommodation where they can be exposed to scenes of violence and mistreatment. Even worse conditions face the hundreds of children forced to sleep rough in train stations or abandoned buildings in the cities of Europe or in the inhumane surroundings of ‘the jungle’ near Calais. 

For these most vulnerable children, education provision is often haphazard or non-existent and it is not unusual for local state schools to refuse admission to refugee children and for social services not to intervene on behalf of unaccompanied minors —leaving welfare and advocacy support almost entirely to self-funding independent volunteers and charities.

When children are forced to make perilous journeys to escape danger, we need governments to join forces with civil society organisations to ensure their safety and well-being. The UN Summit and President Obama’s World Leaders’ Summit offered an important opportunity to remind the world that no-one chooses to be a refugee and that those least able to protect themselves--especially children travelling alone—deserve our love, care and protection. The UNICEF message that children on the move are not refugee children, not migrant children, they’re #childrenfirst is one that needs to echo around the world.


* Precarious Trajectories: Voices from the Mediterranean Migrant Crisis – the documentary film of the research project — will be showing as part of the World Transformed festival in Liverpool in association with Global Justice Now at the Black-E Community Arts Centre 11.00 on Sunday 25 September. Free entry and all welcome. Details here.


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