According to the International Rescue Committee, there are over 50 million refugees in the world today, refugees defined as people who have been displaced from their homes and forced to seek shelter elsewhere for refuge or safety. There are many causes for this, from war to disease to government corruption. Apparently, I was surprised to learn, this is the highest level of displacement the world has seen since WWII.
I have been listening to the UK news reports regarding the 1,600+ lives lost this year from capsized trafficking boats on the Mediterranean. The dialogue in Europe seems to stem from panic that the whole of Africa and Asia are headed our way (e.g., I saw a startling headline in the Daily Mail, "One MILLION migrants waiting to sail to Europe.") With the upcoming UK elections, this situation is prime fodder for party vilification: Labour would let them all in; the Tories would let them all drown; SNP would break up the United Kingdom and resettle them all in London; and, UKIP would build a ring-fence around the United Kingdom so we don't have to deal with any of it.
The public has an interesting assortment of opinions on this. Yesterday on a radio programme, a gentleman caller indicated that in his opinion, the only way to stop the tide would be to get the message out that Europe won't be letting people in. In other words, dear refugees, if you make it to the promised land, you'll be turned around on your heels and face a treacherous return journey on top of the one you just survived. His approach was one of the more moderate of the "no vacancies" approaches to the crisis. On the other hand, several callers felt that Europe has an obligation to help these people. One caller suggested that the key to ending the crisis is to lock up all would-be traffickers. But this ignores the fact that the traffickers are responding to market demands; as with the war on drugs, if you knock off one trafficker, ten more pop up in his place.
I'd like for us to approach this situation from a different angle. First, as a technical matter, the people we are talking about are refugees not falling into standard immigration categories (e.g., employment- or family-based). We don't get to pick and choose who we want when there is a humanitarian crisis. People must receive help on a need-basis and no other.
So what do refugees need? According to the IRC, in the short term, refugees need immediate aid. That is, food, water, shelter and medical care. In the longer term, refugees require tools for self-reliance, including housing, employment opportunities, clothing, medical attention and education.
People are crossing the Mediterranean to find immediate aid. Perhaps if we do a better job of taking the aid to them, they won't need to risk everything to make it to these shores. And perhaps if we do a better of job of supporting regional resettlement (i.e., as close to their homes as possible) and community development, people will have something to build a life on.
Once these refugees make it to Europe, they become our legal responsibility and enter our national welfare systems, where the cost to taxpayers is unaffordable. Financially, it is to our advantage to make it attractive for these people to remain in their home countries/regions where the cost of living is lower. Our taxes will go quite a bit further to improving lives at the root of the problem.
We know we bear some responsibility for the crisis - the Middle East in particular as a result of military aggression and our political machinations, and Africa from a historical perspective. And even if you don't believe that, you must know that if we do nothing, the boats will keep coming. Let's do better by these people, and call on our governments to invest in resettlement programs that meet the needs of refugees and stem the tide of mass migration to Europe.