Rather than focussing on wild Wellington weather, or a detailed itinerary of where Prince Harry’s been gallivanting, I thought I’d delve deeper into an issue that seems to have been popping up on the news a lot recently.
There is a huge refugee crisis in the world right now, particularly in the Mediterranean and the Andaman Seas. Men and women of all ages are risking their lives on overcrowded boats, hoping they will land in a port that will welcome them, their families, and allow them to start a new life. These people are fleeing conflict, violence, persecution and poverty.
Let’s start off with the Mediterranean…
The UN estimates that 60,000 people have already tried to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa so far this year. Those on board are mainly from Libya, Somalia, Eritrea, Egypt, Pakistan, Mali, Gambia, Afghanistan and Syria. Of these 60,000 people, more than 1800 have died in this crossing. This is a 20-fold increase on the same time last year.
These people travel in overcrowded, dangerous boats with little food or water. These trips are organised by people traffickers who charge exorbitant rates for these sea voyages.
The boats travel from North Africa to Europe, usually to Greece and Italy. The reason that more people have died this year than in previous years is because the Italian Navy’s humanitarian operation, which rescued over 166,000 people in one year, was dismantled at the end of 2014. It was replaced with Triton, a much smaller operation. Triton doesn’t physically go out into the sea to save people, but instead patrols the shores.
Many people die on these voyages from starvation, dehydration, and hypothermia. If they manage to stave off all this they are still at risk of unsafe waters and weak vessels that often capsize.
At the end of April, the EU organised an emergency summit to discuss what should be done after 800 people died within a couple of days. EU leaders decided to triple the funding of their naval search budget. Why should Europe help? Well, at the end of WW2, almost all governments signed agreements stating that seeking asylum is a human right.
The European Commission have also unveiled new proposals for dealing with the crisis. Detailed in the “European Agenda on Migration”, the Commission wants each country to have a quota of refugees that they must accept, so as to make it fairer for countries on the coast (namely Italy, Greece and Malta). This quota will be determined based on countries’ population size, GDP, unemployment rate and number of existing asylum applications. For this proposal to become law, it has to be agreed upon by a majority of member states which could take a while… Some countries that already take in lots of refugees are supportive of the quota, for example Germany, while others like the UK are not keen on this quota idea.
There is also a big argument for a focus on the smugglers and cutting their resources, rather than saving the lives of people who get stranded at sea. While these traffickers are exploiting the migrants, they are also the only means for these desperate people to get to Europe. In effect, by targeting the smugglers and not creating any alternative for these people to get to Europe is just as bad. These individuals can’t stay in countries where they face violence and conflict; instead they’ll seek even more dangerous options to find a new life, and that’s no better.
Now we move to the Andaman Sea where the issue is a bit more specific to a certain group of people and their plight.
An estimated 25,000 people have fled Myanmar and Bangladesh by boat so far this year. Thousands of them are currently stuck in the Andaman Sea, not being accepted by any nearby countries.
Muslim minority group, Rohingya, are discriminated against in their own country of Myanmar. They are one of the most persecuted minorities in the world - denied citizenship, freedom to travel and access to education. Many live in Bangladeshi refugee camps.
Rohingya have often left Myanmar for neighbouring countries like Indonesia and Malaysia and have often been allowed in but things have become worse lately and thousands of them are making the voyage across the sea. Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia have given supplies and helped the boats turn around but due to the large influx these countries have all turned boats away. Malaysian Deputy Home Minister said “We have to send the right message that they are not welcome here - what do you expect us to do?”. Thailand’s Prime Minister said it wasn’t fair for his country to shoulder the burden of accepting refugees stating that “no one wants them.” It’s been described as a game of ping-pong, as the boats move between each country seeking help. Because the Rohingya don’t want to go back to Myanmar, they are now stuck at sea. It’s also been reported that traffickers have abandoned the ships due to a crackdown on smugglers, so it is now up to the refugees themselves to operate the vessels. Some of these boats have been out on the sea for months.
Here supplies are being dropped into the water by the Thai Army. Migrants jump into the water to retrive the packages. // Image credit
Meanwhile, Prime Minister John Key says that an increase in New Zealand’s refugee quota is unlikely. New Zealand currently only lets in 750 refugees and their families each year. We rank 87th in the world for refugee resettlement. Australia takes in three times as many refugees on a per capita basis.