After World War I, when millions of European civilians were made refugees, forced out of their homelands by enemy occupation or deportation, an international regime was developed to coordinate effective responses and ease the suffering of those who had been uprooted.
A century later, another refugee crisis is underway, and this time, it is Europe that has the power to provide safe haven to desperate people. Yet it has not risen to the occasion, with many of its responses failing to match the urgency of the situation.
In just the first few months of 2015, more than 38,000 people have attempted to reach Europe by crossing the Mediterranean from North Africa. Some 1,800 people have died as a result – more than twice the number of such deaths in all of 2013.
Disappointingly, many Europeans have responded to this humanitarian crisis, which closely resembles the one that Europe endured a century ago, by opposing their countries’ acceptance of any more refugees. How quickly we forget our past.
Worse, some Europeans want us to forget. Today’s sentiment has been fueled by populist parties positioning themselves as guardians of national identity. Europe, they argue, faces a mass influx that threatens to place even greater strain on its economies, labor markets, and cultures. One does not have to look back a century to see how dangerous the consequences of such rhetoric can be.
But the populists’ narrative is not just inflammatory; it is false. Although it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the drivers of displacement, data from the United Nations refugee agency show that at least half of those trying to reach Europe from North Africa are fleeing from war and persecution. The International Organization for Migration, together with Italy’s navy, has determined that this year’s migrants hail mainly from Eritrea, Gambia, Nigeria, Somalia, and Syria ‒ countries where conditions entitle their citizens to request asylum.
Read more: Europe’s Refugee Amnesia