Refugees Drawn by Europe Magnet

05/04/2015 12:34 pm ET | Updated May 02, 2016

So long as Europe beckons like a golden magnet on the northern horizon over the Mediterranean Sea, Euro warships may rescue many migrants from drowning but will not be able to stem the demographic tide.

In fact, the more folks that are rescued at sea and brought ashore on European soil in Italy, Spain or Greece, the more people from Africa and beyond will be encouraged to try their hand at crossing the sea -- bypassing Europe's laws and its immigration authorities.

We have seen this deadly dynamic before. In the Caribbean, when I worked as a reporter in Miami during the early 1980s, thousands of Haitian boatpeople rode aboard wooden coastal sailing freighters that tried to run the 600 miles to South Florida, praying to survive the hurricanes and sharp rocks along the way.

At first, U.S. Coast Guard vessels did what the Europeans decided to do: provide help along the way and lift the Haitians from wrecked boats to bring them ashore on U.S. terra firma. In some cases, the Coast Guard was too late and Haitian bodies washed ashore on Ft. Lauderdale's beaches - sparking calls for US action.

But the rescue missions by the Coast Guard proved to be what refugee analysts call "a magnet." The assurance of rescue sparked more boat building and more people-smuggling and more deaths along the way. Three solutions were proposed:

--refugee activists said admit all who want to come - not widely popular.
-- return the boat people to Haiti
-- provide economic development to Haiti.

The United States and European nations are among the signatories to the 1951 Convention that created the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. They are legally bound to grant refugee status, protection and aid if migrating people can prove that they cannot return to their homeland "owing to a well- founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion," according to the Convention.

The Convention aimed to prevent a repetition of the inhumane refusal to protect Jews fleeing from Nazi ruled lands during World War II.

But a few paragraphs down, the text offers nation states wiggle room, stating that: "Nothing in this Convention shall prevent a Contracting State, in time of war or other grave and exceptional circumstances, from taking provisionally measures which it considers to be essential to the national security . . . "

In the 1980s, U.S. State Department legal experts interpreted the treaty as meaning that would-be refugees who cannot prove they have a "well-founded fear" of returning to their homeland can be considered economic migrants and thus can be returned.

Hundreds of millions of people in Latin America, Africa and Asia would love to move to Western Europe or the United States, where wages are 50 or 100 times higher.

Europe's population swelled from 500 million in 2008 to 740 million today, largely through immigration - legal or otherwise. Some of the growth was welcomed, providing youthful labor as Europe ages. But Africa has 1.1 billion people and Asia many more. Does Europe welcome an unchecked inflow of immigrants, often from widely differing cultures, religions and lifestyles? I think not. Like the United States - which resorted to building fences, deportations and patrolling its border with Mexico to control illegal immigration - Europe is looking for a way to say "no" politely - in keeping with European niceties.

Well, some 35 years ago, the United States decided to impose its own solution to Haitian boat people - it dispatched its powerful cutters to patrol the passage between Haiti and Miami. When they intercepted a boat, they took the people on board and then conducted quasi-legal hearings to try and determine who could prove they had a "well founded fear" of persecution if they went back home.

"US government statistics show that between 1981 and 1991, over 22,000 Haitians were interdicted at sea, and that only 28 of these were allowed into the United States to pursue asylum claims, according to a UNHCR World Refugee report.

The rest were hauled back to the dock in Port-au-Prince. I raced to be there ahead of one of the first intercepted boatloads. I watched their downcast, disappointed faces as they walked down the gangplank. I followed them to the Red Cross which gave them bus fare back home, and a box of rice, sugar, soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, hair brush and comb. A young couple agreed to let me accompany them back home. At their village in the Artibonite Valley, the woman's mother greeted the couple with sadness, not the joy I had expected. Turns out the family had sold everything - their land - to pay the smugglers.

That is another unmentioned fact amid the activists' calls for rescue and admittance to Europe for all: the ones on the boats are the ones with several thousand dollars to pay for the voyage.

In the Haitian village, sadly, what the couple had fled was soon apparent. Three months after they were intercepted and returned, I came back to visit them. The woman had been pregnant on the boat trip and had delivered the baby. But after a few days it got sick and they had no money for a doctor or medicine. The kid died. And the man was growing a sickly patch of rice the size of a Miami living room, and had to pay 50-percent of the harvest to the landowner.

Perhaps fleeing abject poverty should be a human right. But under international law such as the 1951 Convention on Refugees, poverty alone does not legally qualify people to receive asylum in rich countries, or to get UN protection from being "refouled" - sent back home.

UNHCR was not happy at the unilateral US decision to send back Haitian economic migrants. But UN criticism was ignored by US authorities. After all, the United States was the largest donor to the UN. To compensate for this seemingly inhumane decision, US aid groups, missionaries, investors and Florida political leaders tried to spur development in Haiti so people might have jobs at home. It all came to little as well meaning aid groups came up against politics, instability, eroded land, lack of law, poor governance, corruption and gangsterism.

But interdiction did unplug the magnetic pull of Miami. In 1992, the Coast Guard interdicted (sent home) 31,000 Haitians. By the year 2,000, only 1,000 were picked up and sent home.

Europe is now on the verge of making the cruel decisions the United States made in Haiti and in Mexico. Wealthy northern countries must decide if they want to change the way of life they have created over centuries and accept tens of millions of people fleeing poverty and corruption.