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'Seeing that little body was unbearable': How Europe is responding to the migrant and refugee crisis

The recent discovery of 39 bodies in a lorry in Essex has put the crisis back under the spotlight.

bodies-found-in-lorry-container The lorry inside which 39 bodies were found in Essex. PA Wire / PA Images PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

ON 23 OCTOBER, the bodies of 39 people were found in a lorry container in Essex in England.

Police initially believed the victims, 31 men and eight women, were Chinese migrants but it is now thought they were Vietnamese.

The driver of the lorry, 25-year-old Maurice ‘Mo’ Robinson from Northern Ireland, has been charged with 39 counts of manslaughter, conspiracy to traffic people, conspiracy to assist unlawful immigration, and money laundering.

Last week Chelmsford Magistrates’ Court heard that Robinson was part of a “global ring” involved in smuggling large numbers of people into the UK.

On Friday Eamon Harrison, a 23-year-old man from Northern Ireland, was arrested in Dublin and is facing similar charges.

A number of other people have been arrested in the UK and Vietnam. Police are also looking to speak to two brothers from Co Monaghan, Ronan and Christopher Hughes.

2.47934173 Court drawing of Maurice ‘Mo’ Robinson Elizabeth Cook via PA Images Elizabeth Cook via PA Images

Some families who believe their loved ones are among the victims have come forward. The family of Bui Thi Nhung, a 19-year-old woman from Vietnam, said she, like many others who try to enter Europe, was looking for a better life and wanted to send money back home.

Her brother Bui Thi Ding told ITV News: “Nhung would have done any job she could over there. We are so poor here, we barely have enough food to eat, and our father has died. She wanted to go to England to help our elderly mother.”

The tragedy has again drawn attention to the migrant and refugee crisis, and how Europe is responding to it.

The day after the 39 bodies were found, MEPs rejected a resolution which called on European countries to step up search-and-rescue efforts in the Mediterranean.

What did MEPs vote on?

The resolution, which was not legally binding, called on EU Member States to “enhance proactive search and rescue operations by providing sufficient vessels and equipment specifically dedicated to search and rescue operations and personnel, along the routes where they can make an effective contribution to the preservation of lives”.

It was narrowly rejected – by just two votes: 290 were in favour, 288 against and 36 abstained. All Fine Gael MEPs – Mairead McGuinness, Maria Walsh, Frances Fitzgerald and Sean Kelly – voted against the resolution.

Fellow Irish MEPs – Green Party members Ciaran Cuffe and Grace O’Sullivan, Sinn Féin’s Matt Carthy and Martina Anderson, and independents Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan and Mick Wallace – all voted for the resolution.

No votes were recorded for independent Clare Daly or Fianna Fail’s Billy Kelleher. 

1123 Aldi Foroige Youth Citizenship Awards_90568778 File photo of Fine Gael MEP Mairead McGuinness. Sasko Lazarov / Photocall Ireland Sasko Lazarov / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

The Fine Gael MEPs were criticised for voting against the resolution. Anderson, an MEP for Northern Ireland, said: “It is a matter of deep shame that four Fine Gael MEPs actively voted to maintain a ‘fortress Europe’ status quo that has seen thousands of men, women and children drown simply for seeking sanctuary.

While Fine Gael wax lyrical about the ‘four freedoms’ of the EU, including the freedom of movement, they are ready to side with their right-wing EU colleagues to ensure these values don’t extend to those fleeing destitution, war and persecution.

McGuinness defended her and her colleagues, saying they had concerns about the content of the resolution. Speaking to RTÉ News the following day, she said she “will not allow anyone challenge my ethics or morality around saving lives”, and added that the European Parliament “will revisit this issue again” in the near future.

The most contentious element of the resolution was that it called on the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, Frontex, to make information about its operational activities publicly available.

The proposal called on the agency to “significantly enhance the information available about its operational activities at sea and to make accurate and comprehensive information publicly available as regards its activities at sea, while acknowledging its legal obligation not to reveal operational information which would jeopardise attainment of the objectives of operations”.

Critics said making such information public could actually aid traffickers, as well as rescue ships. “The resolution, had it gone through, would have required Frontex to share information with all ships in the region – including traffickers – and in my view that is just not acceptable,” McGuinness stated.

How many migrants and refugees are entering Europe?

To date in 2019, more than 95,000 migrants and refugees have entered Europe via the main Mediterranean routes – Italy, Greece, Malta and Spain.

The vast majority, over 78,000, entered by sea, while almost 17,000 people arrived by land, according to the latest UNHCR statistics. Every day, hundreds of people attempt the cross the Balkan route to reach western Europe.

MAP United Nations United Nations

The majority of people entering Europe to date this year are from Afghanistan (13,820) and Syria (10,500). Over half (52.3%) are men, 28.5% are children, and 19.1% are women. There has been an increase in the proportion of children entering Europe in 2019, and about 20,000 have done so to date this year.

As of 31 October, 1,078 people who attempted to enter Europe this year are dead or missing. This figure was about 2,300 in 2018. In the last five years, 2016 saw the highest number of people dying or going missing – almost 5,100.

dead or missing United Nations United Nations

The number of migrants and refugees attempting to enter Europe is high but has reduced in recent years, down from a peak of over one million people in 2015. Last year, over 141,000 made the journey.

Numbers are down for a few reasons – a controversial deal the EU struck with Turkey back in 2016 in terms of returning migrants who entered Greece; new border fences in the Balkans; and an agreement between Italy and Libya in 2017 that led to Libya turning back many of the migrant ships leaving its coastline.

How is Europe responding?

There has been much discussion in recent months, and indeed years, as to how Europe should respond to the migrant and refugee crisis. Countries such as Greece, Spain, Italy and Malta are seen by many to be unfairly carrying most of the burden due to their geographical location.

On 7 October, 28 people are thought to have died when a boat carrying around 50 migrants capsized off Italian island Lampedusa. Women, some of them pregnant, and children were among the dead. Several others are missing and presumed dead.

italy-at-least-thirteen-migrants-most-women-dead-after-boat-capsizes-off-italian-island-of-lampedusa Coffins arrive on Lampedusa island on 7 October after the latest drowning. Tareke Brhane / Ropi/Zuma Press/PA Images Tareke Brhane / Ropi/Zuma Press/PA Images / Ropi/Zuma Press/PA Images

Rodolfo Raiteri, who led the search for victims, described the horror of finding the body of a baby, whose mother had clutched him to her as they drowned.

“The sight of that baby down there was unbearable, a blow to the heart. You are never prepared for something as intense as that,” he told the Repubblica newspaper.

Seeing that little body lying on the bottom next to what was probably his mother was like a punch in the stomach.

“The fact they were so close to each other, and the way the arms of the woman were positioned, made us think she had held him close until the last,” he said.

Malta agreement

In a response to this and other drownings, as well as rescue ships being stranded at sea for weeks, four countries – Italy, Germany, France and Malta – recently proposed a system that would screen migrants and relocate asylum seekers across the EU, and return people who do not apply or qualify for asylum, all within four weeks.

The aim of the so-called Malta agreement is to prevent more drownings and stop rescue ships from being stranded at sea for weeks. It has been proposed as a six-month, stop-gap plan pending long-delayed reform of the EU’s asylum policy.

At a meeting of EU interior ministers in October, only Ireland, Luxembourg and Portugal offered to take part in the ‘fast-track’ plan.

From an Irish perspective, a refugee protection programme was set up in 2015, at the height of the crisis, and the country agreed to take in 4,000 people. To date, just under 2,700 people have arrived here.

“Listen to me, we cannot continue like this, with what is happening in the Mediterranean,” the EU commissioner for migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, said last month. “We cannot try to find only ad hoc solutions, we need a permanent mechanism,” he added.

56-migrants-rescued-in-malaga-spain-26-oct-2019 Migrants disembarking a ship after being rescued in the Alboran Sea last weekend. Jesus Merida / Sopa Images/Sipa USA Jesus Merida / Sopa Images/Sipa USA / Sopa Images/Sipa USA

The situation for rescue boats in the Mediterranean has become increasingly perilous. Last weekend, a German NGO said one of its vessels was threatened by a boat carrying Libyan militants who fired warning shots as it rescued 90 people off the Libyan coast.

“We are in shock: we have never been threatened in this way,” Sea-Eye spokesman Gorden Isler told AFP. He maintained that inaction by EU countries is allowing such “brutal behaviour”.

This incident came a week after 104 people were rescued just off the coast of Libya by the Ocean Viking Ship which is run by NGOs SOS Méditerranée and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF).

The route through Libya to reach Europe is a popular path for migrants from Africa and the Middle East.

More people entering UK via trucks

On 27 October, just four days after the Essex tragedy, eight migrants including four children were found suffering from light hypothermia inside a refrigerated lorry that was about to travel from the French port of Calais on the ferry to Britain.

The migrants, who sources told AFP were Afghans, were found during a routine check. The temperature inside the truck was seven degrees Celsius. The two drivers, both Romanians, were detained, and the migrants were taken to a local hospital.

Last week, 12 men – 11 Syrians and a Sudanese man – were found alive in a refrigerated truck in Belgium transporting fruit and vegetables.

The number of migrants being smuggled into the UK in containers and lorries has risen in the last year, according to the British National Crime Agency (NCA). The organisation is aiding the police investigation into the Essex tragedy.

italy-migrant-influx-continues-in-salerno A child arrives at the port of Salerno in Italy after being rescued. SIPA USA / PA Images SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

The NCA’s annual report for 2018-19 said the “majority of clandestine attempts to enter the UK involve concealments in HGV and other motor vehicles from Calais, Zeebrugge or through the Eurotunnel”.

Back in April the organisation warned that criminal gangs are attempting to smuggle migrants into the UK at “less busy” ports after a clampdown in security at major ones.

The exact scale of the problem is unknown as the NCA does not publish certain statistics. However, in 2018 6,993 cases of potential victims of human trafficking and modern slavery were reported to the National Referral Mechanism – a 36% increase on 2017.

History of tragedies

There have been several instances in recent years of people being found dead in trucks as they tried to enter Europe.

On 27 August 2015, at the peak of the migration crisis, Austrian police found the decomposing bodies of 71 people piled in the back of an abandoned poultry refrigerator lorry. The truck, found on a motorway near the Hungarian border, contained the bodies of 59 men, eight women, a toddler and three young boys.

Investigations found that the migrants, fleeing conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, had been picked up by traffickers the previous day in Hungary, then a key transit country on the Balkan migrant trail.

Investigators uncovered a professional trafficking ring, led by Afghan Samsoor Lahoo. Like his three Bulgarian accomplices, he was sentenced on appeal to life in prison in June 2019.

The deaths provoked international condemnation and shortly afterwards German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced she would open her country’s doors, eventually allowing in more than one million refugees.

In 2014, 34 Afghans were found inside a shipping container at Tilbury Port in Essex (close to the location of the more recent tragedy) suffering from severe dehydration, hypothermia and lack of air. One man died during the sea crossing from Belgium.

Going back as far as 2000, 58 bodies were discovered by customs officers in the air-tight refrigerator compartment of a Dutch truck at the southeastern English port of Dover on 18 June that year. Two people survived.

The 54 men and four women, aged from 16 to 43 and all Chinese immigrants, were being transported amid a shipment of tomatoes. The lorry had arrived from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge on a freight ferry.

Contains reporting from © AFP 2019  and PA 

The latest episode of The Explainer podcast explores the situation in more detail:

The Explainer / SoundCloud

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