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'Europe is not honoring the right to live'

Sabrina Pabst/ ccDecember 11, 2014

According to the UN, the Mediterranean is the deadliest escape route in the world. The international community is not doing enough to prevent refugees from taking this perilous journey, says Karl Kopp of Pro Asyl.

Bis zu 700 tote Flüchtlinge bei Schiffsunglücken im Mittelmeer
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Ettore Ferrari

DW: The new report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) once again draws attention to the record numbers of people fleeing by sea: 348,000 so far in 2014, more than 200,000 of whom tried to get to Europe across the Mediterranean. What's behind this dramatic development?

Karl Kopp: Most of these almost 200,000 boat people are refugees in the strict sense of the word - from Syria, Eritrea, Somalia and Afghanistan. The Syrian refugee crisis is now in its fourth year. We have the mass exodus from the dictatorship in Eritrea, and Afghanistan still hasn't been pacified. Those are numerous conflicts around the fringes of Europe. In the Syrian refugee crisis alone, which has the whole country on the run, people have hardly any escape routes left.

The neighboring countries are overburdened and are now following the EU's negative example by closing their borders - Lebanon and Turkey, Jordan too at times. Iraq offers no shelter either, because a new conflict is raging there with the Islamist terrorism of the so-called IS. The land routes are impassable. The situation is escalating dramatically because Europe and the West are not showing sufficient solidarity.

What could the West do ad hoc to ease the situation on the ground?

These people have to take the perilous routes because there are no legal ways of getting to Europe, or access to a safe territory. With the help of Frontex and high-tech equipment Europe has sealed off the borders between Turkey and Greece and between Turkey and Bulgaria. Fences and walls have been built. That's European refugee policy. This is why these desperate people choose to make these insanely dangerous journeys by sea.

Karl Kopp. (Photo: Pro Asyl)
Karl KoppImage: Pro Asyl Deutschland

We have to take the pressure off the affected neighboring countries and provide the refugees with the possibility of staying permanently in Europe or the West: With humanitarian visas, or through the quotas of the UNHCR resettlement program. In Germany alone we have to increase the number of refugees we take in under this quota. Europe is not honoring the right to shelter and asylum, otherwise we would be pursuing a pro-active joint refugee intake policy on a grand scale. These people are visible, identifiable and registered on the other side. It would be a simple matter to evacuate them and provide them with humane admission to Europe.

In their countries of origin these people's lives are insecure. But it's also entirely unclear whether they will survive the journey to Europe. What drives them to expose themselves to this risk nonetheless?

Pure fear and absolute despair. It's not just young, courageous men and women on the boats – it's entire families, many small children, babies and pregnant women. They get in the boats in the hope that they will be among the ones who get to the other side alive.

Infografik Flüchtlingsströme Ankunftsländer im Mittelmeerraum Englisch

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, warns that the international community is sealing itself off and neglecting maritime rescue.

It's not only Europe; Australia too is focusing on warding off this movement of refugees. There's not even a willingness there to establish adequate maritime rescue services. At the moment we have no functioning, European maritime rescue. At the moment, if rescues are carried out at all it is predominantly private merchant vessels that do so.

After the terrible maritime disaster off Lampedusa, the European Union supported Italy in its Mediterranean operation "Mare Nostrum." That mission has expired and been replaced by "Operation Triton," which is supposed to guarantee improved sea rescue, but has been heavily criticized by human rights organizations.

Operation Triton has a third less funding at its disposal, far fewer ships, equipment and personnel for saving lives than "Mare Nostrum." It's devastating that in the Mediterranean we have this enormous graveyard which is getting bigger day by day. The political realm doesn't acknowledge its responsibility for the many dead. Everyone laments them, but nothing is done about sea rescue or an active refugee admission policy.

A boat overflowing with refugees. (Photo: EPA/ITALIAN NAVY / HANDOUT)
According to the UN, around 480 refugees arrived in Italy every day in 2014Image: picture-alliance/dpa/Italian Navy/Handout

Europe is trying to sit out the refugee crisis and is not honoring the right to life. Otherwise it would put down the money and establish a joint maritime rescue service. The refugee movement will continue, even in bad weather. The people will come – no matter how. And Europe can decide now whether these people get here. So far, Europe has effectively said "no."

Karl Kopp is Pro Asyl's Europe region representative and a member of the executive of the European Council on Refugees.

The interview was conducted by Sabrina Pabst.