Refugees deserve our compassion and help, whether at home or abroad.

The recent tragedy of the Lampedusa refugee shipwreck has brought home to Europe the terrible risks that the refugees of the world are willing to take to escape their plight. More than 300 vulnerable individuals including many women and children died on this tragic day, and this is just the tip of the iceberg. Jose Manuel Barroso said he was “profoundly shocked” by the sight of so many coffins and has pledged £25m of EU funds to help refugees in Italy. Barroso also called for the EU parliament to vote on a plan to launch Mediterranean-wide search and rescue patrols to intercept migrant boats. However, this must not become a pretext for increased border security to deny the legitimate entry into Europe of desperate refugees.

There has been a call from the UN for a more joined up approach by the European Union towards the issues of refugees. There was praise for Barroso’s call for increased focus on the search and rescue of migrant boats in the Mediterranean. It should not be surprising to those in Europe that refugees will risk everything to reach our shores when we look at the situation in some other refugee camps. The UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) continue to support some 420,000 Palestine refugees in Syria which is vital work. However, when refugees are killed within these camps due to the continuing armed conflict it is clear why many would rather take the challenging journey to Europe.

Another reason why many refugees would take these risks to get to Europe is the disproportionate impact on women and children. As Refugee International asserts “The stresses of displacement tend to lead to an increase in sexual and gender-based violence”. Women are at “greater risk, compounding existing discrimination”. As women are often the heads of households and the careers of children, children too suffer from the knock on effects as well as the direct effects of such discrimination. In Europe we have taken great strides (if not yet complete) to gender equality and the protection of children. It should be a cause of pride that so many are making their way to our shores. We must also be diligent not to forget internally displaced refugees especially those women and children and encourage the engagement by the refugee agencies and the international community in these troubled areas. Indeed the UNHCR works and supports the internally displaced individuals all over the world in dealing with their terrible situation.

The real issue is, as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson Adrian Edwards has stated “that all available means [are] used to mitigate the root causes of flight in refugee producing countries”.  This is of course an incredibly complex and long term goal but one that must be tackled. There are a number of reasons that people are displaced, becoming refugees against their will. War is a major factor; poverty too is a key issue. The lack of basic human rights is also a reason many see Europe as a beacon of light worth almost any risk to get to. Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said “It is critical that the international community engages further in improving the human rights situation on the ground, to address the root causes so that there is sufficient improvement that people will not feel the need to put their lives at risk by undertaking such dangerous journeys”.

Another, and increasing cause, is climate change and environment degradation and catastrophes. These include floods, droughts, rising seas, mud slides, water shortages, and many more. The climate change issue is perhaps the most difficult cause in the creation of refugees that the international community needs to resolve. However there are also events that we will never be able to control; earthquakes, storms and volcanic eruptions will always be with us. As such, this should inspire us to act against those causes we can control. We must do all we can to prevent war, poverty, human rights abuses and climate change and reduce the dire consequences for those caught up in their wake. Until then we have a moral responsibility and indeed a legal obligation to give aid to the world refugees, both those that make it to Europe and those that do not.

Michael Stagg