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2,400 reasons to care

A Medecins Sans Frontiers doctor and Italian officials examine the body of a 15-year-old Somali boy who died on board MSF's Dignity 1 ship after being rescued at sea. Alessio Romenzi/IRIN

By now, most of us have seen the gut-wrenching photographs of a lifeless Syrian toddler washed up on a Turkish beach. Countless Twitter and Facebook users have suggested only such horrifying images can shame EU leaders into taking action on Europe’s refugee crisis.

But do they really need pictures of a dead child to be reminded that more than 2,400 migrants, many of whom happened to be refugees, have drowned or gone missing in the Mediterranean so far this year? And that dozens more have died inside EU borders – suffocating in the back of smugglers’ vehicles, crushed by trains or neglected in detention centres?

The little boy in these photographs, along with his five-year-old brother and their mother, are only the latest casualties of the EU’s inability to agree on what needs to be done to prevent such tragedies.

If anything, EU leaders have become even more polarised than they were four months ago when a shipwreck that claimed the lives of at least 800 migrants brought them together for an emergency summit in Luxembourg.

The 10-point action plan that emerged from that meeting was woefully inadequate. While it boosted resources for vital search-and-rescue operations, its focus on tackling the smuggling networks completely missed the crucial point that they are a symptom of the EU’s failed migration policies rather than the cause. 

The far more comprehensive European Agenda on Migration, released by the EU Commission in May, has also had little impact, largely because leaders have failed to reach a consensus on key components. The target of relocating 40,000 asylum seekers from Greece and Italy to other member states over two years seems almost inconsequential when 100,000 asylum seekers are arriving in Greece every month. But member states couldn’t even commit to accepting that small number. 

By the end of July, they had pledged to take in only 32,000 asylum seekers and resettle a further 20,000 refugees. This is a paltry figure when you consider that more than 300,000 migrants and asylum seekers have arrived in Italy and Greece since the beginning of the year. Compare it also to the four million Syrian refugees that Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan have taken in between them since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011.

As long as politicians (and the media) continue to conflate domestic immigration issues with the very different factors driving asylum seekers to risk everything to reach Europe, there is little prospect things will change. EU leaders will continue to be driven by the political priority of appearing “tough” on migration, dooming any chance of achieving a harmonised response to the refugee crisis. 

Angela Merkel’s recent statements offer some hope, but unless other EU leaders start following her example, asylum seekers will simply flock to Germany in ever-growing numbers and the goodwill of the German public will be stretched to breaking point. 

Today, a social media campaign called #RefugeesWelcome is trending on Twitter, donations to charities helping refugees are peaking, and EU leaders like UK Prime Minister David Cameron are under growing public pressure to take in more asylum seekers.

Maybe, just maybe, the tide is finally turning. 


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