The U.N. refugee agency says Europe needs to take a broader approach to the influx of refugees and not just expect a few countries to deal with the issue and its causes.
Last week, the European Union cobbled together an action plan that focuses on setting up processing centers in North Africa for asylum-seekers fleeing conflict and persecution and economic migrants seeking better lives.
The hope is to ease the brunt that front-line countries like Italy have to absorb. Facing growing political opposition, Italy has diverted several boatloads of refugee elsewhere.
William Spindler, a senior spokesman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, said Tuesday the U.N. is pushing for an approach aimed at sharing the responsibilities as widely as possible and easing the risks of the perilous crossing of the Mediterranean in rickety, overcrowded boats.
“We are very concerned about the situation of thousands of people losing their lives while trying to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa every year, and the death toll is increasing” even though the overall number of refugees has declined, Spindler told VOA’s English to Africa service.
“Last month, for instance, one in every seven people who tried to cross the Mediterranean died. This is outrageous. Something needs to be done,” he said.
UNHCR wants Europe to address several intertwined issues simultaneously: Implement a policy on picking up refugees at sea and allowing them to land, expand the planned processing centers to Europe, and address the root causes of the exoduses by promoting job creation and resolving conflicts in the originating countries.
“Saving human lives has to be the priority,” Spindler said. “Rescue at sea and disembarkation go hand in hand. [Otherwise,] You could have a situation where captains might hesitate before they rescue people in danger,” including sailors unrelated to the migrant crisis.
“That’s why we have put forward a number of proposals to the EU that will see clear, pre-identified disembarkation centers not just in North Africa but all across the Mediterranean.”
So far, no North African countries have signed on to host processing centers, partly due to concerns that they could attract even more migrants.
“That’s why it’s important to look into cooperation arrangements and not simply for Europe to shift its responsibilities, to close its borders and let somebody else deal with the problem,” Spindler said. “We have had that for too long. That is a short-term view that doesn’t really address the issues.
“The case of Italy is particularly urgent because they are the country that has been receiving in recent years the largest number of people, and we think that this is unfair. We need to have a system where this responsibility is shared,” he added.
The other critical issue is tackling the reasons why people leave their countries.
“Otherwise, you are simply looking into the effects and not really into the causes,” Spindler said.
‘Opportunities at home’
The EU announced Tuesday that it would allocate about $100 million to help protect refugees and borders in North Africa. But critics say the plan diverts economic development aid for Africa.
“The international community should support the development of countries of origin, looking to creating more work opportunities in countries such as those in sub-Saharan Africa, and also to invest in governance and respect for human rights in these countries,” Spindler said. “People need to believe that there are opportunities at home. We need to give back that sense of hope to people.”
An even thornier issue is defusing conflicts, some of which seem intractable after dragging on for years or even decades.
“There have never been so many conflicts around the world as there are today, in sub-Saharan Africa, but also in the Middle East, and this is the main trigger for the movement of populations who are looking for protection,” Spindler said. “And the capacity of the international community to prevent and solve conflicts seems to be very diminished.”