Over the last few weeks, Britons have been well-informed on the harrowing experiences faced by migrants travelling to Europe in an attempt to escape the harsh realities in their homeland. As a result, the media frenzy over the ‘European migrant crisis’ has not only raised fears across the continent over the safety and wellbeing of the incoming migrants, but has also led to an increase in xenophobia towards the thousands of escapees in search of a better life. In Britain in particular, there has been a growing apprehension and antipathy aimed in the direction of migrants, swayed by a refusal to accept their newfound habitation in the European Union. This view is somewhat epitomised by David Cameron’s use of the word ‘swarm’ in describing the numbers of people crossing the Mediterranean Sea in search of security in Europe.
But should Britain and its Western compatriots shoulder some of the blame for the recent influx of migrants to the European Union? In answering my own question, yes of course the West should hold a significant amount of responsibility for the crisis.
First and foremost, while the crisis is commonly being described as an issue concerning ‘migrants,’ in reality a huge percentages of those arriving in Europe are in actual fact refugees seeking asylum. This would suggest that the people arriving in the EU are generally not in search of the financial benefits that the region has to offer – as the term ‘migrant’ has often implied. Rather, such people have fled from the horrors of violent conflicts or political and social persecution in their countries of origin.
However most importantly, the majority of the people claiming refuge have directly (or indirectly) been affected by the often negligible foreign policies of the West outside of the EU. The highest number of migrants that have travelled to Europe are from Syria. Since the turn of the year, over 100,000 people have fled from the destructive Syrian civil war that has seen the country torn between the regime of Bashar al-Assad and armed militia, including the new proponent of Islamic radicalism the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Although the West have stopped short of armed intervention in the civil war, the United States and Britain have consistently bolstered the Syrian opposition by supplying intelligence, training and ammunition to groups fighting against the government. This has only helped to excerabate the severity of the conflict and further tarnish the lives of civilians in Syria.
Afghans also constitute a significant number of migrants arriving in the EU, largely due to the fallout from the US and NATO led War in Afghanistan. The conflict – which was motivated by the September 11 attacks, has caused widespread devastation across the country. Fourteen years later the war continues to plague the citizens of Afghanistan, with the somewhat unsuccessful deposition of the Taliban proving in hindsight to be a costly and ruinous venture for the West. According to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), over 2 million people have been classified as refugees since hostilities began in Afghanistan.
Like in Syria and Afghanistan, recent Western involvement in Libya and Iraq has extended the extirpation of civil society across the Middle East and North Africa, and as a result has increased the number of refugees entering the EU. In 2011, NATO intervened against the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi following his apparent refusal to cease actions against civilians that the West considered as ‘crimes against humanity.’ Three years later, with the help of his Western allies Barack Obama would also initiate another offensive in Iraq against the growing influence of ISIS in the north of the country.
In both conflicts, the West have to some extent been successful in achieving their military objectives by tackling the Gaddafi administration and the threat of ISIS. With that said, the West have also proliferated the humanitarian crisis in Iraq and Libya and have played a decisive role in worsening the living conditions of civilians. In Iraq alone, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that roughly 5.2 million people now need humanitarian assistance, including food, shelter, clean water, sanitation services, and education support. Furthermore, the demise of national order and security within Libya is embodied by the fact that migrants are repeatedly using its northern border as an escape route to Europe. Incredibly, in August 4000 people travelling from Libya were saved from boats off the coast of the country in what has been described as one of the largest rescue missions during the ‘crisis.’
Away from the Middle East and Libya a growing number of refugees continue to emigrate from Eritrea, which is recognised by the UN to have one of the worst records for human rights. In recent months, thousands of Eritreans have escaped to the shores of Italy in response to the oppressive, single-party state under Isaias Afwerki. However, despite the West’s insistence on protecting the liberties of people across the world – as demonstrated in its exploits in the Middle East and Libya, the plight of the Eritrean people has largely been ignored by Western policy-makers and its mainstream media. This is typified by the fact that reports on the European migrant ‘crisis’ have scarcely mentioned the amount of Eritreans entering the EU or the reasoning behind their escape. Unlike in the Middle East and Libya, Eritrea does not present itself as a ‘goldmine’ for natural resources, and as a consequence Eritrea falls outside of the West’s economic and political interests.
As the members of the EU scramble to find a solution to the migrant ‘crisis,’ a multitude of people will continue to risk their lives in an attempt to leave behind the trials and tribulations they face in their homelands. Europe has now become the ‘promise land’ for many of the migrants escaping their mother countries, with approximately 340,000 men, women and children having already journeyed through cruel and unsavoury terrain towards the intangible EU border. However, many have now perished in the most inhumane of circumstances on the road to a safer environment that they could one day call home. But will there be a robust resolution to the European migrant ‘crisis’? It is unclear. What is certain is that the West must accept considerable accountability for the plight of migrants and take the necessary steps to make certain that they are given the protection they deserve in Europe. Going forward, it is vital that the West re-evaluate the measures used as part of its foreign policy and ensure that lessons are learned to avoid a migrant crisis on this scale from occurring in the future.
Ric Yeboah is a recent graduate in BA History from Goldsmiths, University of London with a keen interest in historical studies, politics and current affairs. Also an experimental musician, influenced by African / Middle Eastern music.