The despair to stay alive

Faced with an unprecendented number of men, women and children seeking protection and the rising toll of completely preventable deaths both outside and within Europe's borders, Monday's EU emergency summit is the moment for Europe's leaders to achieve what they have so far abysmally failed to do: show tru leadership and agree on a shared and effective response to this extraordinary challenge. 

This implies not only assuming shared responsibility for welcoming and offering protection to some of the asylum seekers arriving in Greece and Italy but also preventing more unnecessary deaths. A genuine commitment to the core European values of solidarity and the protection of human rights and dignity demands no less.

For years, Malta and other countries at the southern border of the EU have harped on the need for mutual solidarity and responsibility-sharing among member states in the area of migration. In recent weeks, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has repeatedly called for a ‘European solution’ to the crisis. But a ‘European solution’ is only possible when each country shoulders responsibility.

If Malta’s voice on migration is to have any credibility at all, then it is essential that we too shoulder our share of responsibility, despite our real or perceived limitations. This year, the number of boat arrivals to Malta dropped to a record low and, until August, we had received 865 asylum applications – some 53 per cent of the annual average of 1,626 applications between 2004 and 2014.

People who fled war-torn countries will do anything to remove their family from deadly danger

Resisting the urge to quibble over quotas would allow the discussion at the summit to go beyond numbers and address the far more pressing issue of saving lives.

It is the essence of hypocrisy to blame smugglers, unscrupulous as they are, for the deaths – more than 2,700 this year alone – in the Mediterranean.

People undertake gruelling and risky journeys and entrust their lives and those of their children into the hands of smugglers because it is impossible for them to reach a place where they can find protection and survive in any other way. Most people fleeing for their lives simply cannot get a visa to travel to Europe legally and safely, even if they have family there who are willing to welcome and support them.

Creating safe and legal ways for people to access protection would go a long way towards the supposedly desired aim of combating smuggling by putting smugglers out of business rather than destroying their boats. No one would choose to spend thousands to get their family onto an inflatable dinghy if they could get onto a plane to travel to Europe legally and safely for a tenth of the price.

Faced with an entirely predictable refugee tragedy on our doorstep, every country in Europe, no matter how small, can take steps to allow refugees to travel there legally to seek protection.

One very concrete step Malta could take is relaxing the strict rules on family reunification and allowing people who have subsidiary protection to bring their families here.

Malta could also consider extending this possibility not only to children or spouses but also other dependent family members such as elderly parents, sick or disabled relatives.

Many of those granted subsidiary protection have family at home who they left behind because they wanted to spare them the dangers of a journey across desert and sea. Almost all without exception hoped to bring their family to join them once they obtained protection. But Maltese law only allows those granted refugee status to bring their immediate family to Malta – making the island one of only two member states of the EU that does not allow even limited family reunification rights for people who have subsidiary protection.

Just as me and you would do, people who fled war-torn countries will do anything to remove their family from deadly danger. When they can take no more, they do the unimaginable to save those they love – even paying a merciless smuggler, in spite of the horrible risks.

Allowing them to reach Europe legally and safely would demonstrate a clear political commitment to go beyond words to urgently needed action, even if at a cost, to prevent people from dying in their despair to live.

Katrine Camilleri is director of the Jesuit Refugee Service (Malta).

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