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EU must get on board to tackle refugee crisis

24 April 2015

This article was originally published in The Irish Examiner on April 24th, 2015.

EU leaders met last night to discuss the plight of people willing to risk their lives to reach our shores.

An estimated 1,800 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean so far this year. In 2014, approximately 3,500 men, women and children boarded boats in the hope of reaching Europe only to perish in the sea.

The rise of anti-immigration political parties in some EU states suggests that growing numbers of voters believe Europe is being asked to resettle disproportionately high numbers of refugees. We see images of boats being intercepted and assume that Europe is the only destination for refugees. We hear politicians speak about ‘floodgates’ opening and believe that we are being unfairly targeted.


The facts tell a completely different story.

According to the United Nations, 86 per cent of refugees are living in developing countries . Of the top ten refugee-hosting countries, six are in Asia or the Middle East while four are in Africa. None are in the EU .

The three countries at the top of that list – Pakistan, Lebanon and Iran – are home to 3.7m refugees between them . That figure stands in stark contrast to the 570,820 asylum applications lodged across all 28 EU countries in 2014 .

The EU needs to take practical steps to reduce the risk to people embarking on the treacherous journey across the Mediterranean but it also needs to tackle the myth that we are being asked to unfairly shoulder the burden of migration. Forced migration as a result of war or crisis is a global problem and the statistics show that poorer countries are impacted much more than richer ones.

It is also vitally important that we look at ways to reduce the number of people living in such misery that they are willing to risk their lives in order to live in poverty in Europe.

For more than three decades Afghanistan was the largest source of refugees. Virtually all of the 1.6 million refugees living in Pakistan were born across its north-western border . Since the middle of last year, however, Syria has overtaken Afghanistan as the birthplace of the largest number of refugees.

In the four years since conflict erupted over three million Syrians have fled the country. The vast majority have made it no further than Syria’s immediate neighbours. Lebanon – a country half the size of Munster – is home to one million Syrians. Jordan has the highest number of refugees per capita in the world.

In comparison with these countries, the numbers of refugees living in EU member states is small. Ireland has the ninth lowest number of asylum applications in the EU, with just 6,560 people having sought asylum here over the last five years . Even Luxembourg – a country the size of Meath – has had more asylum applications than Ireland.

Tragically, Europe’s reluctance to share the refugee crisis fairly with Syria’s neighbours has led to many Syrians risking their lives trying to penetrate our borders. More than 218,000 migrants crossed the Mediterranean Sea in 2014, almost three times the previous known high of about 70,000 in 2011 during the ‘Arab Spring’ .

Wealthy countries like to portray themselves as unfairly shouldering the burden of the world’s refugee population but this simply is not true. Almost nine out of every 10 refugees lives in a poor country. The 44 most industrialised countries in the world received an estimated 866,000 new asylum applications in 2014, fewer than the number of refugees currently living in Lebanon .

Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia are the three largest refugee-producing countries in the world, accounting for almost seven million people seeking shelter in foreign lands . Clearly, we cannot tackle the global refugee crisis without resolving the crises in these three countries.

What we are seeing now could be the start of a much deeper migration crisis. Climate change threatens to displace millions over the coming years and decades. Rising sea levels will inevitably lead to massive human displacement in a world where more than one tenth of the population lives in low-lying coastal areas, including 15 of the world’s 20 largest cities.

Taking just one example, it is estimated that a one metre sea level rise – which is expected this century – would displace 30 million people in Bangladesh. Those people will have to go somewhere and for many that destination will be outside of Bangladesh’s borders.

Drought will also lead to huge shifts in population as more and more land succumbs to long dry periods incompatible with food production. Tackling our carbon emissions now will without doubt reduce forced human migration in the future.

Migration is symptomatic of problems that are forcing people to risk their lives simply to escape where they were born. We must tackle the root causes of poverty and conflict that lead to such desperation, while also being honest with ourselves that the EU is not the victim of a mass migration conspiracy. The overwhelming majority of migrants are living in poor countries. Any genuine reflection on Europe’s immigration policy must start with an acknowledgement of that fact.

This article was originally published in The Irish Examiner on April 24th, 2015.