Recent data, published by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), reports a major decline in migrants and refugees who have taken the perilous journey across the Mediterranean Sea and arrived into Europe so far this year. This signifies over a fifty per cent reduction in those risking their lives to enter Europe, compared to the same period last year.
There have also been less fatalities this year, in comparison to last. During the summer, when travel conditions are more favourable and the sea is warmer, it is usually the case that there is a steep increase in those crossing the Mediterranean – so why the sudden decline?
It is not clear exactly what is behind this reduction, although it coincides with allegations that Italy is paying off Libyan militias in order to stop the smuggling of migrants across the Mediterranean. In return, they are allegedly receiving aid and financial support.
The Italian government has refused to respond to these allegations and has argued that highly changeable weather conditions are leading to the decline in arrivals. It has also been suggested that Libyan coast guards have been more effective at intervening in sea crossings, due to equipment and training being provided by the Italian navy. However, this contradicts reports that the Italian navy may be complicit in human rights abuses committed by Libyan coast guard.
Meanwhile, the world’s media coverage has shifted to focus on the humanitarian crisis in Myanmar, where at least 400 people have died and almost 370,000 Rohingya Muslims have been forced to flee to Bangladesh.
The NGO Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), which has been conducting search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, has decided to suspend its European operations and redeploy to Southeast Asia, to assist in alleviating the plight of the persecuted Rohingya people. It is unclear, as of yet, what the impact of this decision is likely to be.
Solidarity is Essential
Despite the reduction in refugee arrivals, solidarity from the whole of Europe is essential. Whilst the crisis in Myanmar and the shifting international media attention has offered a welcome respite for EU governments, it is important that the European situation does not continue unchallenged simply because conditions have changed slightly. The temporary emergency relocation scheme, established by the EU in September 2015 to relocate people in need from Greece and Italy, is due to expire soon, with fewer than 30,000 people relocated in the two years since the scheme’s inception, falling far shorter than the commitment to relocating 98,255 people by September 2017.
As the European Commissioner for Migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos stated recently ‘When Europe works together in a spirit of responsibility and solidarity, we make progress and achieve concrete results, both inside and outside the EU.’ The current, somewhat deplorable, state of affairs in Europe, embodied by disputes and a lack of willingness to accept migrants and refugees is threatening this spirit of responsibility and solidarity.
If Europe is to achieve any kind of integrated approach to this issue, it needs to work in cooperation. European countries must adopt a position of compassion and empathy and combine this with an organised response, placing the lives of migrants and refugees at the heart of its approach. This must come in accordance with respect for international and regional legal obligations that European countries have signed up to – including the 1951 Refugee Convention.
With hostility and a sense of heartlessness still the prevailing attitudes adopted by parts of the European media, it is important that these views are not reflected on the European population. If we allow the media to dictate the narrative of the refugee crisis, we are displaying to those who desperately flee their homes in search of safety that they are not welcome here. This is surely a shameful position to take.
This article was written by Max Slaughter. Max worked as Media Monitoring Assistant on the Refugees Reporting project for the past two months. He has recently graduated with a MA in Media and International Development from the University of East Anglia and holds a BA (Hons) in International Relations and Politics. His professional interests include media, conflict, human rights and international development.