* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The first two months of 2016 have been a deadly period for migrants and refugees making desperate journeys to start a new life in Europe. The UN says 80,000 people arrived by boat during the first six weeks of the year, and more than 400 have died trying to cross the sea, including dozens of children.
As senior European politicians meet again tomorrow to discuss the crisis, hundreds more people will likely make the perilous sea-crossing. Despite the worsening winter weather, the numbers are growing, with crossings up 150 per cent up on the same time last year. The dangers don’t end on arrival in the EU. Last month in Lesvos, the Red Cross reported that two women and a five-year-old child died of hypothermia. Without action, further tragedy is inevitable.
Of the more than one million people who crossed the Aegean and Mediterranean in 2015, most were from countries riven by conflict, poverty and political repression – mainly from Syria and Iraq, but also Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan and Nigeria. One in three of the people seeking last year were children, who face unique vulnerabilities on their journey – from drowning, to exploitation and abuse by smuggling gangs, to separation from their parents.
Only a collective European response can properly protect children caught up in the biggest refugee crisis to face the continent in decades.
But as Europe’s leaders prepare for their high-level meeting, the signs of such a response are not encouraging. It is almost a year since member states agreed on an agenda for migration which so far has yielded few results. Commitments on relocation, resettlement, funding and ‘hotspots’ have not been fulfilled. Some member states have stepped up, but many more have not. The European Council meeting in Brussels must not be another wasted opportunity.
For any plan to work it must be based on three essential pillars. First, a relocation and resettlement programme is needed which prioritises children – whether travelling unaccompanied or with their families – and other vulnerable groups. This will reduce the incentives for people to undertake dangerous sea crossings, and take the bottom out of the people smugglers’ market.
Secondly, Europe must make a concerted attempt to tackle the refugee crisis at source. Ultimately, this will require diplomatic efforts towards durable peace agreements in the Middle East and Afghanistan, as well as greater stability in many African countries. But in the near term, Europe must invest more aid in the services and livelihoods children and their families need if they are to see a future for themselves in their regions of origin. At the moment, three million child refugees from Syria and Iraq have dropped out of school, risking a lost generation. The London Syria conference earlier in the month made an important start by committing to get one million of these children into school by the end of 2017.
Thirdly, a European response needs to recognise our humanitarian obligations to people arriving on our shores, in line with the 1951 Refugee Convention, and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. This means properly resourced search and rescue operations in the Aegean and Mediterranean with the mandates of saving all lives. It also requires reception and transit facilities that are equipped for the winter, protect children from sexual abuse and violence.
At the moment, the absence of a properly thought out European plan is creating a vacuum where public unease about an unmanaged crisis has grown, and where governments have resorted to unilateral responses. Some recent steps taken by EU countries, such as plans to seize cash from arriving refugees and placing new restrictions on the rights of families to be reunited, not only risk adding to the misery already faced by refugee children, but also risk poisoning the public mood and raise serious questions about adherence to international law.
Europe’s response to the current refugee crisis is nothing less than a test of its founding principles, which were cast from the fire of the Second World War. In 1939, on the eve of that continental crisis, Dorothy Buxton, the co-founder of Save the Children, wrote:
“Some exercise of constructive imagination in dealing with a problem that involves the lives of millions, and perhaps the fate of Europe, some show of the diviner faith and the humaner principles which perish at the hands of Fascism – how greatly would this raise the hopes of a whole world of tormented and despairing people?”
That same ambition and moral clarity is needed now. The solution to the current crisis is not to add obstacles, danger and uncertainty to the journey of some of the world’s most vulnerable children, but to plan swiftly and at scale so that European governments and those in countries hosting large numbers of refugees work together to manage the crisis effectively and humanely.
If Europe fails to rise to this challenge, we risk undermining not just the foundations of international refugee and human rights law, but also the foundations of the freedoms and prosperity that Europeans have created for themselves.