THE BLOG

Will the Mediterranean Become Europe's Cemetery?

02/09/2015 04:21 pm ET | Updated Apr 10, 2015

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 3,400 people died in 2014 trying to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe. While addressing the European Parliament for the first time in November 2014, Pope Francis pleaded European leaders to stop the Mediterranean from becoming "a vast cemetery," an apt comparison given the increasing number of migrant deaths.

A recent New York Times article entitled "Promise of Europe Lures Syrians and Smugglers" describes the smuggling networks that have developed to transport refugees from Turkey to European countries like Italy. Trips cost between $4,000 and $6,000 per person, which may mean all refugees have. In addition, passengers are put on rickety ships which employ dangerous tactics to "mobilize search-and-rescue operations, including throwing motors overboard and allowing ships to run out of fuel.''

Why have migrants resorted to such dangerous measures to reach Europe?

Today, UNHCR helps 3.2 million refugees, "the largest refugee population under UNHCR's mandate" and "one of the most dramatic humanitarian situations at the present time," according to High Commissioner Antonio Guterres. In the same speech, he explains that it is important to go beyond the numbers to understand the severity of the situation:

"Imagine people who crossed the border three or four years ago, with some savings and with a lot of hope that after six months they would go back home. By now, the savings are gone. There are no jobs. The living conditions are difficult. The assistance is limited. Refugees live in extremely complex environments. It is no surprise that many families are forced to resort to child labour, that there are early marriages, and even sexual exploitation and abuse. These people are suffering enormously."

In the face of such suffering, many refugees are willing to risk their lives in the hopes of having a better life. But, the harsh reality is that with rising migration flows, more states are resorting to non-entrée measures to keep migrants, including genuine refugees, from accessing their jurisdiction and thus gaining access to the benefits of international refugee law. Non-entrée takes many forms: U.S. practices of interdiction at sea and expedited removal, Spain's immediate deportation of immigrants crossing into the Ceuta and Melilla, and Australia's interception of asylum seekers at sea. Greece's closing of its border with Turkey to keep large flows of Syrian refugees from flooding the country is one of the reasons why refugees resort to the Mediterranean rather than taking land routes to reach Europe.

Non-entrée measures are not only morally reprehensible, but they are also against international law. The principle of non-refoulement, or no forced return, means that states should not "expel or return ('refouler') a refugee in any matter whatsoever to the frontiers of territories where his life or freedom would be threatened on account of his race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion." This principle is invoked in a number of international human rights treaties, most notably the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (Article 33).

One result of failing to live up to non-refoulement is that the principle of burden sharing, which states that countries should shoulder the responsibility of hosting refugees collectively, is undermined if not completely forgotten. The fact that developing countries host 80 percent of the world's refugees reveals today's deep imbalance in burden sharing. Such an imbalance results in destabilizing situations for developing countries. For example, crushed by the 1.1 million refugees officially registered in Lebanon, the country has recently announced that it cannot handle any more refugees.

Countries like the United States, Australia, and Canada, recognized as the major refugee resettlement countries in the world, should do more to level this imbalance. There are practical reasons for doing so, such as making sure developing countries remain politically stable. But clearly, the moral imperative for action should be the most compelling--we need to keep the Mediterranean from becoming Europe's cemetery.