The Mediterranean migrants are forcing the European Union to find a way through a choice of competing conscience and practicality. The EU is riven between its humanitarian duty to look after people in trouble and the necessity of not becoming overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands if not millions. To date, the fear of opening the door to millions of people ‘invading’ from North Africa has dominated the Europeans and frozen their normal humanitarian instincts.
But even if the EU has been wrestling with large numbers of people, they are still manageable and are not overwhelming. The number of asylum claims rose to 626,065 in 2014 which was up from 435,190 in 2013, according to the European Commission. In 2014 the largest number of applicants was from Syria and their number had more than doubled thanks to the ongoing civil war, which made Syrians 20 per cent of the total. The situation this year will be very different as the flood of people from Libya and Somalia will dominate the statistics. There are some practical issues to be solved immediately. All the European states need to take more responsibility for shared caring for the people in trouble who get to their shores. It is wrong that Italy and Greece have to shoulder the burden of caring for the largest numbers, simply because they are the largest entry points. Second, the EU needs to offer a more generous target as the maximum number that it will accept as refugees and offer asylum to for a limited period of years. Third, the EU should restart the more effective Mare Nostrum force that dealt with the migrants and the people smugglers on the high seas in the Mediterranean.
It is also true that the long-term answer is to help stabilise Libya, Somalia and Syria so their unfortunate citizens can return to their homes, but this is a very long-term answer to an immediate problem. The immediate answer is for the EU to be far more generous in supporting the refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon who are coping with far more refugees than the EU has dreamt of handling.