Help Refugees Before They Leave Home

A boat with 600 odd refugees from Africa finally found a port in Spain after being turned away by Italy and other countries. You can read more about it here in this thorough and well written coverage.

This event is hardly unique- refugees cross the Mediterranean from Africa towards Europe every day, often drowning on the way. I call attention to the news article linked above simply because we see here all of the heartbreaking and intractable issues surrounding this problem on display at once.

Notice that in the finger pointing over which (if any) European country would offer to accept this ship there doesn’t seem to have been much debate over whether these people are economic migrants or bona fide refugees (although it’s likely that argument will start once they are landed in Spain and their cases begin to be heard in Spanish immigration courts.) The reason this isn’t being talked about is simple- it’s so painfully obvious that it doesn’t matter. These people are on a dangerously overcrowded rickety boat, with limited food and water, most in need of medical attention. How does analysis of exactly how they got there make a difference? The question is do we help people in desperate need, or do we let them die of thirst, disease, or drown?

This article says there were ‘refugees from 26 countries escaping kidnappers, blackmailers, torturers, and groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram as well poverty and chronic food shortages.’ Readers familiar with immigration law likely realize that those fleeing from torturers, ISIS and Boko Haram may have valid asylum claims, while those fleeing poverty, food shortages, and blackmailers likely do not.

But how are those legal distinctions really important? The article also takes pains to point out the trauma, abuse, and danger all these people have suffered. Clearly, if life wasn’t unbearable where they came from they wouldn’t have risked everything to get on that horrific boat. None of them have anywhere to return to if Spain deports them. Being sent back to Africa would likely be a sentence of death.

At the same time, we see the tremendous European political resistance to accepting more refugees. Europe has already taken in a staggering number. The cultural or security impact of this is hard to quantify, but clearly the economic cost is severe. This article quotes an unofficial newspaper survey saying that 2/3 of Spaniards are opposed to accepting more refugees, with a quote from a taxi driver, ‘it’s one thing to be generous if your country is doing well.’ But Spain is still recovering from an economic downturn in which unemployment reached 30%.

So what’s to be done? The emergency manager of Doctors Without Borders makes a candid admission: ‘We are not the cause of this, nor are we the solution.’ That’s exactly right. Rescuing or helping people fleeing Africa for Europe is not what’s causing Europe’s refugee problem. Without Doctors Without Borders’ help the refugees would still be there, just a bit less visible and with a few more having died of diseases or drowned.

And providing immediate medical assistance, along with food and water to refugees disembarking at port is hardly a solution. These people will require tremendous help in almost every area- medical, economic, housing, job training, and so forth, along with of course some type of legal status. These are things clearly only a government can provide, and no government can be expected to this long term for large numbers of people who are not its citizens.

The answer is also in this news article, in a quote from the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani: ‘The EU must do all it can to promote peace and economic development in Africa, or we will see migratory flows of biblical proportions- not thousands but millions.’

Refugees remind us that we are all bound together as inhabitants of planet earth. Those of us who are so fortunate as to live in places where there is security, prosperity, and the rule of law cannot ignore those who are not, because if things get bad enough they’ll confront us as refugees. Devoting time, effort, and resources to care for foreigners in far away places is actually in the best interests of everyone.

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