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Global crisis

Interview: Peter HilleApril 21, 2015

The flood of refugees attempting to reach Europe from Africa and the Mid-East is turning into a global crisis, warns Alexander Betts, head of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University in England.

Symbolbild - Flüchtlingsboot Mittelmeer
Image: Italienische Marine/dpa

Deutsche Welle: You and others have warned of a global displacement crisis. Is what we've seen over the past couple of days in the Mediterranean the tip of the iceberg in that crisis?

Alexander Betts: Absolutely. We need to situate what happened in the Mediterranean in a broader context and recognize that this is not just about people coming across the Mediterranean. There is a broader global displacement context to it. We have over 50 million people displaced around the world - more than at any time since the Second World War.

More and more of those people need to come to Europe because they are not getting protection and assistance in their regions of origin. To take one example, the Syrian crisis has reached a tipping point. There are 9 million displaced Syrians, 3 million of them are refugees, and in the immediate aftermath of the crisis, most Syrians were able to go to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. But it just wasn't sustainable for those countries to be expected to host nearly all the Syrian refugees, and last year both Jordan and Lebanon closed their borders.

Inevitably, Syrian refugees have to go somewhere, and so over recent months, more and more Syrians have crossed the Mediterranean in desperate circumstances. So we need to recognize that with more and more displaced people around the world, with the declining willingness of host states to protect and assist those people, and with inadequate responsibility-sharing by the international community, there will be a global displacement crisis that has implications for the movement of people from regions of origin towards destination countries in Europe.

Why are so many refugees trying to reach Europe from Libya - a failed state, a state that's in turmoil and war?

Libya is geographically situated within reach of Europe. It offers a proximate crossing point from North Africa to Italy and across the Mediterranean, but it is also a fragile and failed state. It provides a fertile environment, within which smuggling networks can operate relatively freely at the intersection of movement from West Africa, from the Horn of Africa and from the Middle East. And smugglers are able to congregate and charge up to $1,500 a time to transport people across to Europe.

Libya itself has 400,000 internally displaced people of its own. It's historically had a large migrant worker population and that has meant that there are historical routes leading to Libya from other regions, such as West Africa.

Großbritannien Alexander Betts Uni Oxford
Image: University of Oxford

Now, within the present context, Libya is fertile ground for human smugglers. But what needs to be recognized is that the presence of smugglers is not the cause of the movement of people across the Mediterranean. It's a symptom of the desperation and vulnerability of many people, including refugees who, because they seek to move, create a demand for the services which smugglers provide.

Would you say this desperation is caused primarily by conflict, violence and political persecution, or by economic hardship and hunger? Is the recent movement driven more by violence?

A lot of the movement is mixed migration, in the sense that it involves mixed populations with different motives but also involves individuals with very complex motives. To understand why people are coming it's important to look at where they're coming from. And a significant and growing proportion of people coming across the Mediterranean are coming from Syria in particular, and also from weak and fragile countries, such as Somalia and Eritrea. So a very significant and growing proportion are refugees fleeing conflict, violence and persecution.

Of course, a proportion are also fleeing economic hardship and looking for greater economic opportunity. In particular, a significant number is still coming from West Africa, including from Gambia, Senegal and Mali. Many of those people are not fleeing violence and persecution. So the people coming are mixed groups from different countries, but what is really significant in the current movements is that a growing proportion appear to be refugees coming from countries in which they have no alternative but to leave for political reasons.

The EU, as an economic heavyweight, seems to be incapable of handling this crisis. What would you suggest; how should the EU adapt its policies to tackle this problem?

The EU needs to do a number of things. The most immediate thing - and the focus of the EU meeting taking place today - needs to be to dramatically improve the search and rescue policies of the European Union.

Last year, the Italian government ran a search and rescue operation called Mare Nostrum, and last year Mare Nostrum rescued around 100,000 people in the Mediterranean. But in November 2014, that program was abolished and replaced by a joint EU program, an operation called Triton. That operation has functioned through Frontex, the EU border agency, on a budget a third as big as Mare Nostrum, with a narrow geographic scope, and unsurprisingly it's saving far less people.

We need to move back to a more comprehensive search and rescue program along the lines of Mare Nostrum before it was abolished. But beyond that, we also have to think more broadly and see this crisis and the Mediterranean in a global context. We have to ensure that we provide better protection and assistance to refugees in their regions of origin. We have to have better and innovative approaches to protect Syrian refugees.

The Syrian refugee crisis is an exodus in the making. We can't depend on Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon to indefinitely protect people - they don't have the capacities. So we need resettlement for refugees. The resettlement countries for the European Union are pathetically low. My own country, the UK, has resettled less than 50 refugees. Against the backdrop of 9 million displaced people, that's too low. So I think what's important is to understand that, yes, we need to improve search and rescue in the Mediterranean, but we need to be creative and rethink the way in which on a global scale we engage in international cooperation to improve protection and assistance for an inevitably growing number of refugees and displaced people around the world.

This interview was conducted by Peter Hille.