The world’s steps towards a humane and constructive response are slow and faltering. But people in flight need help and sympathy, not rejection
The scale of the global humanitarian crisis that has been unfolding since the Arab spring precipitated revolt and instability across the Middle East in 2011 can feel overwhelming. In the past few weeks alone, terrible stories have emerged of the brutal treatment of Rohingya Muslims, forced to flee Myanmar to grim camps in neighbouring Bangladesh. A fortnight ago, CNN ran a devastating film shot undercover in Libya, showing young migrants from Nigeria being auctioned into slavery. The sight and sound of a market in human beings carries a weight that dwarfs other reporters’ graphic accounts of the scale of the trade. The impact of the CNN report drew unflattering attention to the EU-backed programme run by Libya to detain and repatriate migrants in order to prevent them attempting the Mediterranean crossing into Italy or Spain. This is an arrangement of convenience for Europe. It has led to migrants being held in wretched and degrading conditions that in an unusual rebuke of the countries that pay a significant part of the costs, were condemned by the UN as “inhuman”. This week the EU met with members of the African Union in Addis Ababa. The EU has now signed up to a programme to repatriate migrants rather than leaving the huge task to a country that is still in turmoil after the fall of Gadaffi, which was backed by the UK, France and the US.
The great majority of the world’s displaced people flee to the nearest safe place, often another poor or middle-income country: in the past year a million refugees have arrived in Uganda from South Sudan. By far the largest part of the responsibility for those displaced around the Middle East has been borne by neighbouring countries, in particular Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. Europe has been reluctant and defensive in responding to a crisis for which it is at least partly to blame. There has been a complete failure to agree a fair process for resettlement of refugees across the 28 member states. Greece and Italy have been left, for years now, to manage an unprecedented influx of desperate men, women and children. In an unparalleled international political vacuum, there has been little global leadership.