A natural reaction to the news that up to 700 refugees might have drowned off the coast of Libya in the past few days is to wring our hands at the senseless waste of human life. But we can do more than that – indeed, we must do more to ensure this latest tragedy, itself an echo of many similar incidents, does not continue being repeated endlessly.
The underlying cause is well known: faced with problems in their homelands ranging from wanton massacres to a lack of economic opportunity, unprecedented numbers of people are seeking a better life elsewhere. A significant portion of these are exploiting the political instability in Libya to make an illicit journey to Europe, many in boats that are not seaworthy. Others go as far as Australia in the hope of finding sanctuary.
While the cause might be obvious, the solution is not. Even when the conflict in Syria and instability in Libya are addressed – and neither is probable in the near future – there will always be some who will risk it all in pursuit of a better life. In the meantime, we have to deal with the symptoms of this: the thousands making hazardous journeys and getting into trouble. Equally well established is that Syria’s neighbours and the countries of southern Europe that bear the brunt of this refugee influx are also far less economically capable of dealing with it than richer states.
All this is well known but what has been lacking in an overarching strategy to find a better way to deal with it. Some of this can be put down to a lack of political will, because many politicians realise that this is an inflammatory issue for voters. The influx of refugees into Europe, in particular, is causing the numbers voting for right-wing candidates to increase. The richer countries also know that they will be asked to shoulder a far bigger share of the burden, both financially and in taking in genuine refugees.
This is not a purely European issue, just as it is not an issue just for the Arab world where many of these people originate. This is a human issue that deserves a response in keeping with the highest standards of the international community. While we are loath to suggest starting with a conference – so many end up as pointless talkfests, producing gestures and speeches rather than action – that is the place to begin reaching an international consensus about how to address one of the biggest human migrations the world has ever seen.