Visiting the small and makeshift graveyard on Lesbos — set up by caring local volunteers — as I did in recent days, is a heart-breaking experience. I defy anyone not to be moved by the sight of so many small graves, lives that were needlessly lost. It is hard not to come away with the sensation that unless something is done to end this tragedy, Europe’s values and reasons for existence will soon be lying there with them. These were children and young people, most of them fleeing war, only to drown in cold winter seas within sight of safety.
On its website the European Union proclaims “human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, rule of law and respect for human rights” as its core values. These are surely not the standards we displayed in recent months when refugee families turned to us in their hour of greatest need. Instead of trying to help, the countries in which they are seeking humanity and safety are erecting ever more fences and creating endless legal obstacles.
All the reasons for which the European Union was created — economic stability, free flow of goods and people and solidarity — seem to have been long forgotten.
Forgotten, that is, by its political leaders.
On my recent trip, alongside the worst of what humankind has to offer, I also witnessed the very, very best. Humanitarian organizations, as well as volunteers from all over the world, are working around the clock to provide emergency assistance.
At the same time — in the face of often overwhelming pressures that they were not trained to meet — border officials have been left to cope without the necessary resources.
Against this backdrop, Save the Children was deeply disappointed by the discussions at the EU-Turkey summit last week and the direction of travel. The logic behind the proposed deal that requires one person to risk their life at sea in order for another to enjoy safe and legal passage into Europe is deeply flawed.
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The proposed “return one to resettle one” policy idea regarding Syrian refugees, as well as the suggested blanket returns of these people to Turkey without proper safeguards, will be particularly harmful for children. It will only serve to increase insecurity about their status and they will seek other, more dangerous routes to reach Europe, making them an easy prey for smugglers and traffickers.
Driving people into illegality doesn’t stem the flow; it increases risks for vulnerable people and only creates a larger, long-term problem for authorities dealing with these criminal groups.
The demands that Save the Children has been making since August seem ever more urgent and relevant:
1. Safe and legal routes to reach EU countries.
This should include strengthening and expanding resettlement schemes, and supporting humanitarian admission programs, including humanitarian visas, increased flexibility in family reunification processes, private sponsorship programs and student scholarship schemes. Since the start of 2016, 410 people have drowned in the Mediterranean — among them 77 children, almost two per day. Many more children are being separated from their parents along the route, because of the constantly changing policies that create chaos and confusion on the ground. The deaths and misery are completely and utterly avoidable, while the root causes of people fleeing need a longer-term political solution.
2. An appropriate response in the countries of origin.
People will continue to undertake risky and expensive journeys as long as they cannot see a future for themselves in their countries of origin, or in the refugee camps where they have fled. Europe sits on two-thirds of the world’s aid budgets and is central to supporting decent living conditions for refugees and displaced children in Syria and in neighboring countries, particularly Lebanon and Jordan.
3. An effective and expanded relocation mechanism.
With 1.1 million refugees and migrants arriving last year and even more expected in 2016, expanded and more effective relocation is urgently required. Last year the EU agreed to relocate 160,000 people arriving in Greece and Italy to other sites across Europe, well short of what is required. Even that modest target has apparently been too difficult to implement. A paltry 660 people — 0.4 percent of the original commitment — have actually been relocated so far.
4. Humane and adequate reception centers and processes.
The EU needs to act swiftly to ensure front-line states have the funding and resources to help those people currently stuck within their borders. Children are in particular danger in the midst of the current chaos. Services have reached breaking point, and across the whole route they fall short of what is needed to host people in a humane and dignified way. The idea that decent reception centers would further encourage the flow of migrants and refugees not only pales alongside the current unacceptable reality of young children sleeping outside in mud and damp amid subzero temperatures, it is also incredibly shortsighted.
5. Maintain search and rescue operations.
Europe must maintain its search and rescue operations to continue saving lives. But it must also ensure these operations have the adequate capacity and mandate needed to deal with the rising scale of the problem. By deploying NATO ships, the refugee crisis is being militarized instead of the humanitarian response that is required.
One of our saddest moments on my recent visit was when a 17-year-old boy in Geveljija told us: “I left Syria because I faced humiliation every day and I came to Europe full of hope. But all I find here in this Europe is humiliation.”
Europe’s leaders meet this week to take decisions that go to the heart of values that underpin their union. Without a humane response built on the principles of human rights, more children will die unnecessarily or be left traumatized by ever more desperate and dangerous journeys.
The social and political fabric of Europe will continue to fray amid a disorganized and inadequate response to this crisis, and Europe’s leaders are in danger of being wilfully blind to an avoidable tragedy on its soil.
Europe owes it to thousands of refugees and migrants, and to its citizens, to do better and to ensure that its founding principles are upheld — whether on Lesbos, in Idomeni, in train stations and migrant and refugee centers across the region, or in the corridors of Brussels.
Across Borders is a monthlong online conversation hosted by Devex and partners — World Vision, the European Commission's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department, the U.S. nonprofit partner of the International Organization for Migration and United Nations Volunteers — to analyze and amplify the discussion on global migration and current refugee crises through the lens of global security, development cooperation and humanitarian aid work, and more. Visit the campaign site and join the conversation on social media tagging @devex and #AcrossBorders.