The European Union is in the midst of a crisis of conscience. From their headquarters in Brussels, EU leaders have spent years promoting a brand of acceptance, morally driven policies and socially responsible approaches to challenges throughout the world. And yet, in recent months, these policies have been leaving behind thousands of people, often at the cost of their lives.
The challenge for Brussels is that these people are not citizens of the European Union. Robust social policies and heavy spending generally take good care of EU citizens, despite the strain on budgets and finances. However, these programs, combined with the significantly higher standard of living found in the developed world, provide powerful motivation for immigrants, especially refugees seeking a safe haven.
Turmoil, war and suffering continue to be a part of life in parts of the Middle East and Africa. With both Syria and Libya in the midst of devastating civil wars, the number of refugees is staggering. Estimates place over 6 million people displaced in Syria alone. Beyond the human cost, the structural cost is significant as well. While governments and citizens fight for whichever side they choose, civil organization is lost, opening up opportunities for all sorts of illegal activities.
One main business that has sprung up is smuggling; not goods mind you, but people. Refugees from Libya, from Syria and from many other parts of Africa are increasingly willing to pay for passage to Europe in hopes of gaining asylum. These groups include thousands of workers from Sub-Saharan Africa who come to Libya as a first stop in a search for better economic prospects.
Statistics around these groups are always disheartening. In 2014, traffickers brought over an estimated 219,000 people. These refugees and migrants had no entry papers, few prospects and hardly any connections. In the process of coming over, around 3,500 migrants lost their lives.
This year, the numbers took a startling turn for the worse. In January through April, the pace of migrants coming over stayed roughly the same, with 46,000 migrants entering Europe through one of the four main migration routes. However, in that time more than 1,700 people are confirmed dead or missing.
Herein lies the crisis for the European Union: how are the governments supposed to respond? The EU is made of up 28 different nations, each with needs for its own immigration policy. In practice, these can vary dramatically between countries, even for those close to each other. For example, Sweden features the most liberal immigration policy while Denmark is incredibly restrictive. Forming a unified policy, and then implementing it, will be incredibly difficult.
An example of this difficulty stands behind the question of how much should the EU help. A major factor in the increased deaths is a decrease in spending on rescuing those fleeing across the Mediterranean. Italy used to run a program called Mare Nostrum that focused on sending ships on patrol to actively pick up stranded refugees and migrants. This program was shut down under the argument that it pulled people towards the EU. Reports showed that smugglers would often sink or abandon their ships full of migrants in the middle of the journey, counting on the Italian Navy to show up and rescue those left behind.
While this is a rational argument, it does not adequately solve the moral question at hand. It is unacceptable that so many thousands of people are dying in an attempt to secure a better life. One approach is better economic development in developing countries to enable people to stay. By increasing opportunities where people are, the struggle of dealing with those forced to leave will be greatly reduced.
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