The refugee crisis is not going away

With few weeks of good weather left this year, increasing numbers of people will be trying to cross to Italy from North African coast.

2016/10/02 Issue: 75 Page: 6

The Arab Weekly

Within 48 hours of two major international summits on the refugee crisis, a boat carrying several hundred migrants headed for Europe capsized off the Egyptian coast. The tragic coincidence was a reminder of how urgent — and seemingly intractable — the refugee issue is.

In New York, probably right around the time smugglers were cramming their boat with many more desperate people than prudent, the United Nations was concluding its first Summit for Migrants and Refugees. As more and more Egyptians, Syrians, Sudanese, Eritreans and Somalis boarded the doomed vessel, US President Barack Obama was convening a Leaders’ Summit on Refugees.

The dangerously overloaded vessel eventually sank. The incident ranked among the deadliest for refugees crossing the Mediterra­nean Sea. Only 162 bodies were recovered and nearly the same number of people were rescued.

The terrible truth is the boat disaster will not be the last. With few weeks of good weather left this year, increasing numbers of people will be trying to cross to Italy from the North African coast, particu­larly from lawless Libya where people-traffickers flourish with impunity. The International Organisation for Migration has recorded 206,400 refugees crossing the Mediterranean so far this year — and 3,500 dying in the process.

Numbers no longer seem an accurate way to measure the largest mass displacement crisis since the second world war. At 65 million — one in every 113 people on the planet — the number of refugees is the highest ever recorded, according to the UN Refugee Agency. More than half of the total comes from three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia.

Despite the focus on Europe’s problems after last year’s ceaseless influx, 86% of the world’s refugees are hosted by developing countries — Turkey, Pakistan, Lebanon and Jordan. Yet it is Western countries that complain loudest about the burden posed by refu­gees. It is in the United States and various European countries that anti-immigrant sentiment is taking hold.

The deals being worked out by Europe are mostly too expedient to offer any long-term guarantees for a solution to the problem. The EU agreement with Turkey is tenuous even if it is rapidly becoming the template for others in the Middle East and North Africa. The idea is to offer incentives to poorer MENA countries that host large numbers of refugees so as to allow the latter to work and temporar­ily settle near their home countries.

Even if it provides much-needed support to MENA countries, the plan does not fully take into consideration the historical sensitivi­ties in the region regarding the settlement of refugees. Further­more, it does not address the complex set of reasons motivating the endless flow of would-be refugees.

Young men and women from the Middle East and North Africa are fleeing war and terror.

Beyond the survival instinct, many from the Arab world and Africa are also seeking greener pastures in Europe away from their countries’ basket-case economies and failing states.

In today’s interconnected world, it is unrealistic to expect frustrated young people, regardless of race or religion, to think otherwise. Politicians should not lose sight of the wide scope of the migration crisis.

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