Monday, 22 July 2024 02:19

Horrific tragedy reinforces Europe's escalating migration crisis

Monday, 31 August 2015

ON AUGUST 28th Austrian police said they had found 71 dead migrants in a refrigerated lorry. The bodies of 59 men, eight women and four children were discovered just inside Austria’s border with Hungary. The vehicle appears to have been abandoned on August 26th, but the decomposition of the bodies indicates that the migrants may have suffocated or died of thirst earlier than that. Torn lining inside the lorry’s interior suggests that some had battled, fruitlessly, to escape.

Beyond its immediate horror, the discovery highlights two worrying developments in Europe’s migrant crisis. The first is the increasing sophistication of people-smuggling organisations within Europe. Traffickers have long operated in Italy, helping migrants who have crossed the Mediterranean from North Africa to continue their journey northwards. But this year many more are entering Greece from Turkey and travelling up to Hungary and beyond via the Balkans; their numbers create demand for organised smuggling services. (Most are Syrian, as the migrants discovered in the lorry are presumed to be.) Four people have been arrested over the deaths, including the lorry’s owner and drivers, but Austrian authorities say they are pursuing over 800 separate people-smuggling investigations.

A second, related development is the use of private vehicles to circumvent police and border officials who have stepped up their checks of buses and trains along well-trodden migration routes, and removed or expelled migrants without proper documentation. This increases demand for cars, minibuses or, in today’s case, lorries, because the cross-border volume of private traffic is too high for officials to check more than a tiny fraction of vehicles. Some migrants may simply hire taxis, but given the scale of the movement it was inevitable that organised smuggling would emerge.

Both developments stem from the same problem that leads to migrants being tear-gassed at Greece’s border with Macedonia, or occupying filthy camps in Calais: the clash between the wish of many asylum-seekers to reach particular parts of Europe and governments’ jealous preservation of their own national migration and asylum policies. In theory the 71 people who died this week should have claimed asylum in the first European Union country they reached, which for most was probably Greece (or, once they had completed their trek through the Balkans, Hungary). In practice most will have had other destinations in mind: perhaps Germany, a generous host with low unemployment; Sweden, where they may have hoped to rejoin family; or Austria itself, which per capita accepts more asylum-seekers than almost any other European country.

Yesterday the politicians discussing migration at a Western Balkans summit in Vienna, not far from the site of the catastrophe, were moved, as they have so often been before, to wring their hands and urge that more must be done. But Europe’s sluggish bureaucratic procedures are no match for this accelerating crisis. Today the UNHCR said that over 300,000 migrants had reached Greece and Italy so far this year; up from 219,000 in the whole of 2014. The UN predicts that 3,000 a day will soon be journeying through Macedonia and Serbia. And with signs that life is becoming more difficult for Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Turkey, there is reason to believe these numbers will be sustained.

In the medium term, a resettlement programme orders of magnitude larger than that so far agreed (22,504 refugees to be distributed around most European countries) may be the only realistic way to deter sufficient numbers from making the illicit journey. In the short term it is hard to see a solution beyond a dauntingly large expansion of asylum-processing facilities in Greece. In the meantime the ground is left for others to deploy the arsenal of the security state. But border fences and riot police are no answer to this crisis.

Source: The Economist

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