Lampedusa brings shame on the European Union

Financial Time, 22/10/2013

By Bernard Kouchner

Our leaders lack both vision and generosity, writes Bernard Kouchner

Lampedusa is a metaphor for the EU : there were once high hopes but there are no longer any expectations. At the bottom of the Mediterranean lie the bodies of fugitives from nearby poverty. They embarked for Europe believing they would find salvation and a new life for their families on a continent that is not even capable of agreeing to throw them a lifebelt. Already 20,000 have drowned, says Migreurop, the non-governmental network. They are the wretched of the sea and they are building the liquid tomb of our European illusions.
The EU has proved unable to forge a harmonised immigration policy, still less a foreign and defence policy. It is not even able to rescue those who still believe in the European dream.

This is all the more shameful as it is failing where, in 1979, civil society proved capable of rescuing the Vietnamese boat people fleeing communism. “First, save the bodies !” exclaimed Jean-Paul Sartre and Raymond Aron of the refugees drowning in the South China Sea. For three years, we – doctors and activists – dispatched boats to fish them out of waters more than 7,000 miles from our shores – without the help of any commission in Brussels.

The Isle of Light was the first vessel of seven European sea ambulances protected by French warships. It was the start of a struggle for the right to intervene. We had no notion, left and right both, that it was impossible – so we did it. “Should we let them die ?” we asked our governments. “Yes,” they answered. “So it has been, since the world began ; every man for himself.” Campaigners for the right to intervene protested against this cowardly consensus. The “duty” to intervene then became the “right” to intervene when the UN General Assembly in 1988 and 1990 adopted almost unanimously two French resolutions to that end. A UN international commission invented the “responsibility to protect” to stop us arriving always after the catastrophe. Helping the shipwrecked has become the law of the world.

However, the momentum has gone. Our leaders keep saying : “The migrants are illegals, there is no place for them.” Five hundred million Europeans cannot agree to share the human burden of several thousand needy. Our governments lack both the imagination and the generosity.

Ask the inhabitants of Lampedusa, gateway of the immigrants, what they think of Europe. The islanders do not accept that their fishermen alone must be prepared to save those who are drowning. The Italian and Maltese navies provide at least some relief in this cursed passage between Africa and Europe. It is not enough.

The boat people of the Mediterranean are men, women and children hounded out of sub-Saharan Africa by the poverty of nations such as Eritrea and Somalia ; or, from further afield, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Others flee war in Syria and bombings in Iraq. The latter, not unlike the Vietnamese boat people, seek political asylum. Ferried by well-paid smugglers, they are promised an Eldorado.

For those who survive, seeking asylum is a painful process. On arrival, they are parked in camps under police surveillance. Then begins their long, uncertain bureaucratic journey. Legally, our system allows us to help only those about to drown. We must change this perverse welcome.

What must we do ? First, reinforce Frontex, the European border agency, with money, resources and the primary objective of watching the maritime corridor off the African coast. I propose a “one country, one boat” mission, so that all 28 EU countries participate in this rescue plan. Asylum seekers should be allocated to all EU nations, not only those bordering the Mediterranean. On Thursday, at their Brussels summit, our leaders must take the political decision to forge a Europe of solidarity.

Finally, we must change and harmonise our immigration policies, establishing quotas based on Europe’s skills shortages. Not all migrants will be accepted but there should at least be a clear process. Such a process of receiving migrants would put into place a more noble means of selection than mere death at sea.

The writer is the founder of Médecins Sans Frontières and France’s former minister of foreign affairs

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