It has been an especially grim time for refugees fleeing unrest and terror in the Middle East and Africa, and seeking to enter Europe.
On Thursday August 27, Austrian police examined a large van that had been left in a motorway pull-out about 15 miles from Vienna, and close to the border with Hungary. They were alerted by a police motorway patrol officer, who had seen fluids leaking out the back door. When they opened it up, they found the decomposing bodies of what they estimated to be between 20 and 50 people.
The next day, it was revealed that there were in fact a horrific 71 bodies: 59 men, eight women and four children were crammed into a small space. It’s believed they had been dead for nearly two days.
Police have said the bodies appeared to be those of Syrian migrants after they found a Syrian travel document. These Syrians must have been facing truly horrific situations to allow themselves to be packed into this small space and driven away, in total darkness. Four people have been arrested in the case: three Bulgarians and one Afghan.
At the same time, more than 2000 miles away, refugees were being pulled out of the sea off the coast of Libya, after a boat sank, likely killing around 200 people. The boat was probably carrying around 400 people, but about half of them were unable to escape because they were locked in the ship’s hold when it capsized.
300,000 Refugees So Far in 2015
By the end of July this year, almost 300,000 refugees had fled their homelands, mostly Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and African countries, in the hope of escaping violence and making a new life in Europe. This compares to a total of 217,000 for the entire year of 2014, according to the Washington Post. Another 2,373 or more refugees have died in their bid to reach Europe.
I use the term “refugee” deliberately. As David Miliband, president and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, explained on the PBS NewsHour:
“A refugee, defined by the international conventions established after the Second World War, is someone who is fleeing a persecution. They have a – quote, unquote – “well-founded” fear of persecution.
A migrant is someone who is seeking a better life basically for economic reasons. And I think it’s very important to continue to uphold the distinction between the two. The asylum-seeker that you refer to is really a refugee who is applying for asylum in a country in which they land.”
According to US News, “The U.N. refugee agency says it boils down to whether the person is being pushed or pulled: A migrant is someone who seeks better living conditions in another country; a refugee is someone who flees persecution, conflict or war.”
A Global Crisis
There are many heartwarming stories of individual citizens in Europe, especially Greeks and Germans, working hard to find ways to help these refugees.
But it’s clear that more action needs to be taken at a national and international level. Ironically, as the tragedies of August 27 were being uncovered, a summit focusing on the how to deal with the refugee crisis was being held in the Austrian capital, Vienna.
At that meeting, Austria’s Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz expressed his belief that the external borders of the European Union (EU) must be strengthened, while the countries of Serbia and Macedonia, which are not members of the EU, demanded that the EU must come up with a clear action plan.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed: “They’re facing huge challenges and as they are future members of the European Union it is our duty to help them with these challenges.”
Hopefully, something positive will come out of these meetings, but what about the UK and the US?
Why Are the UK and the US Refusing to Help?
As The Guardian reports, David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, seemed especially callous as he spoke of the refugees:
“attempts to enter his country had increased because ‘you have got a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain because Britain has got jobs, it’s got a growing economy, it’s an incredible place to live’.”
Let’s remember that there are around 3000 asylum seekers waiting in Calais, hoping to make it to England, as compared to the 300,000 that have entered Europe so far this year.
As for the US, many of the refugees are escaping from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, countries in whose wars the US has been deeply involved. Yet there has been no recognition of this fact, no acknowledgment that this is a global crisis, one in which the US should play its part.
It is horrific that people are suffocating and drowning in their quest to reach safety. The UK and the US need to step up.