Lampedusa, the colliding point of the International Migration Crisis ?

A talk given at a Liberal International British Group meeting at Lib Dem Conference, by LD4SOS Council member, Suzanne Fletcher.

This isn’t a talk about the facts and figures, there are very many indeed. In the first half of this year 137,000 crossed the Mediterranean Sea, travelling in terrible conditions, in unsafe boats and dinghies. Many more have tried and failed. In 2013 a boat from Libya to Italy sank near to Lampedusa, and 368 refugees died. In short too many feel compelled to try, too many die in the process.

The majority of those taking the sea route to Europe are refugees in rapidly rising numbers. Most are fleeing from war, conflict, or persecution at home, as well as deteriorating conditions in many refugee hosting countries. The main countries of origin of those arriving in Italy, for instance, are Eritrea, 25%, followed by Nigeria, Somalia, Syria and Gambia.

Where do they want to go? More than 90% want to move elsewhere in the EU, most are not heading for the UK, the most popular places being Germany and Sweden, where they hope for a warmer welcome.

As the arrivals increase, reception capacity and conditions in Europe remain seriously inadequate. There are little or no facilities for people with special needs, including separated and unaccompanied children, making them even more vulnerable to the risk of exploitation. The lack of dignified reception facilities not only creates precarious conditions, but fuels tensions with local communities and contributes to onward movements.

To answer the question of the fringe meeting – is Lamepedusa the colliding point on the International Migration Crisis? the answer is definitely not. We, in the UK, all hear about what happens in the Mediterranean in the news, but it is a relatively small part of the global picture. Whilst we obsess about how many are arriving in Europe, but a massive 86% of the world’s refugees are hosted in developing countries.

A refugee crisis is nothing new, it goes as far back as written history, at least 3,500 years. The 1951 Refugee Convention set a global standard, and there is no reason at all why this should not be upheld today.

The lack of legal routes means that there is just no choice for many people and their families but to turn to smugglers. In doing so they are paying out huge amounts of money, but even worse are endangering their, and often their families’, lives.

At a fringe meeting,, held by Liberal Democrats for Seekers of Sanctuary some years ago, the life jacket situation was described to us. “..holding up a fluorescent life jacket that she had picked up on a beach in Lesvos. It was made for a toddler.  She then told us it was actually a fake.  It would not have acted as a life jacket, but the parents who would have paid money for it did not know that.  It was worse when she showed us a tiny life jacket, for a baby.  Also fake.  What sort of pressure would a family be under to put their children through such a risky journey ?” The room went silent. We were shocked, and the image of that tiny, fake, life jacket remains with me.

The controversial – and should they not be controversial? – efforts to save lives have sparked opposition citing the “pull factors”. Quite simply, those taking the risk see no other choice, it is a “push factor” not a pull one, as Baroness Sally Hamwee often points out.

To go back to Lampedusa. Whilst so many died, the heroic efforts of the islanders meant that 155 lives of the boat that sank were saved. The Island’s carpenter was so moved by the situation of the survivors, and what they had fled from, he made each one of them a cross from the boat wreckage. Both as a reflection of their salvation from the sea and also as a powerful symbol of their hope for the future.

Another cross was made that is taken around the world as a witness to the uncertainties faced today by those fleeing over the sea. It is to remind us of the power of own acts of love, mercy and hope.

The Pope said “we ourselves need to see, and then enable others to see, that migrants and refugees are brothers and sisters to be welcomed, respected, and loved.”

UNHCR has a set of proposals, condensed as:

Saving lives at sea; Dignified reception conditions; Ensuring greater solidarity within Europe; increasing legal avenues to safety, and collective action in response to the global displacement crisis.

As Liberal Democrats we cannot disagree with this. The root causes of the displacement must be tackled; fences and border controls are not going to stop people moving in a time of crisis. We need there to be a radical reappraisal and bold thinking, along with other countries. A Brexit that could be the beginning of the break-up of the European Union is only going to make the situation worse. The crisis is huge but not impossible, to tackle.

Above all else, as Lord Roger Roberts has just said, we must give HOPE.