World Refugee Day: Governments, not smugglers, are the real problem

Visit of an Amnesty International delegation to an informal settlement with refugees from Syria in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. © ALI ALSHEIKH KHEDR / Amnesty International

Amnesty International


20 June 2015

By Anna Shea, Refugee and Migrant Rights Advisor/Researcher at Amnesty International

This April, a Greek soldier made international headlines when he saved the lives of several refugees off the coast of a Greek island. Antonis Deligiorgis was dubbed the “Greek hero on the beach” but he was more modest: “Without really giving it a second’s thought, I did what I had to do.”

He is not the only one. On Greek islands like Leros and Lesvos, local networks of residents work around the clock to provide food, dry clothes and shelter for newly arrived refugees.

The humble compassion of Antonis and the islands’ residents compares starkly with the stance of most governments – whose main goal appears to be keeping refugees and migrants away from their borders.

In the face of the worst refugee crisis we have seen in decades, wealthy countries are shutting their doors on the world’s 19.5 million refugees, and pushing them into the arms of criminal gangs profiting from their desperation. It is not smugglers who are the cause of the problem – it is the governments who have failed to act with the basic human decency that so many people like Antonis Deligiorgis have shown.

This Monday, Amnesty International warned that the global refugee situation has not been this dire since the end of the Second World War 70 years ago. The crisis in Syria is the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of our time, with four million refugees struggling to survive in neighbouring countries and another 7.6 million people displaced within its borders. Less publicised conflicts are also devastating; three million refugees are fleeing human rights abuses in South Sudan, Nigeria, Burundi and other parts of sub-Saharan Africa.

These people are doing what any of us would when trapped in intolerable circumstances: they flee. To achieve this, they will risk everything. Sometimes the only thing they have left to risk is their lives.

The world’s wealthiest countries are doing shockingly little to help people leave places where their rights and lives are at risk. The international community offers money, but not enough to deal with the unprecedented scale of the crisis. More importantly, wealthy countries are miserly when it comes to offering refugees a new home, in the form of resettlement programs.

This means that the countries shouldering the responsibility for this massive crisis are generally the ones least capable of doing so; 86% of the world’s refugees live in developing nations. Turkey, Pakistan and Lebanon each host more than one million refugees. The global number of resettlement places for refugees from Syria represents a little more than 2% of those living in the neighbouring host countries. And in 2013, fewer than 15,000 refugees from the entire African continent were resettled.

Wealthy countries’ resettlement programs are deeply inadequate. This absence of safe and legal ways to reach sanctuary is literally killing people.

Each year, thousands of people perish in their attempt to seek asylum. They die from starvation and abuse, from drowning, dehydration and disease.

In April 2015, more than a thousand people died in just ten days trying to reach Europe. In May 2015, thousands of people were stranded for weeks on boats off the coast of Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, while these countries either pushed them out to sea or bickered with each other over what was to be done.

The public outcry over these events has forced governments to act, though grudgingly.

While Malaysia and Indonesia eventually announced that they would allow 7,000 people stranded at sea to land, the protection will be temporary and conditional upon the international community assisting with repatriation or resettlement.

Extra boats deployed to the Mediterranean by European governments are working, as there have been much fewer deaths in the past six weeks. However, the only way to reduce the number of people risking their lives at sea in the hands of smugglers, is for EU countries to agree to resettle significant numbers of refugees and open further safe channels to reach Europe.

Given the obvious shortcomings of the international community’s response to these types of tragedies, many governments seem to be trying to deflect attention away from their failures by characterizing the global refugee crisis as a trafficking or smuggling issue. They are correct, but not in the way they mean. Governments say that smugglers or traffickers are the problem. But in reality, smuggling and trafficking are the result; inadequate government action is the chief cause.

When people are desperate, nothing will stop them from leaving. Governments bear moral responsibility for preventing them from using safe and legal channels, thereby forcing them to use the services of smugglers or making them vulnerable to exploitation by traffickers.

The actions of governments compare starkly to the conduct of ordinary people and communities who often treat these newcomers with the dignity that is blatantly missing from the official policies of many governments. Migration has always been part of the human condition. Preventing people from moving, and punishing them when they do, is wrong and doomed to fail.

Governments must end their conspiracy of neglect and address the global refugee crisis, beginning with an unconditional commitment to saving lives first. The funding and resettlement commitments that are urgently required are reasonable and achievable demands. What refugees need is not heroism, but simply basic human decency.