Seventy years ago, the 1951 UN refugee convention established the rights of refugees to seek sanctuary, and the obligations of states to protect them. Increasingly, it seems that much of Europe is choosing to commemorate the anniversary by ripping up some of the convention’s core principles.

So far this year, close to 1,000 migrants have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean, more than four times the death toll for the same period in 2020. Many will have been economic migrants. Others will have been fleeing persecution. Increasingly, Europe does not care. All were “irregular”. And all must be discouraged and deterred through a strategy of cruelty.

The latest tragedy occurred last week, when at least 57 people died as a boat capsized in high winds off the Libyan coast. Sea patrols, whether by Italian or European agencies, have been significantly scaled back, making such disasters more likely. The owners of NGO rescue ships have been harried in the courts and seen their vessels seized. As Europe sits on its hands, thousands more desperate seafarers are being returned by Libyan security forces to detention centres where sexual violence, torture and abuse are rife.

In Greece, vast numbers are stuck in hopeless limbo, many in squalid overcrowded camps. After the devastating fire at the Moria camp in Lesbos last September, the European Commission rushed out a new “pact on migration and asylum”, emphasising the need to balance border protection and humanitarian concerns. But there is still no agreement between EU member states on the resettlement quotas and processes that could defuse the crisis. Meanwhile deafening “sound cannons” have been deployed on the Greek border with Turkey to drive migrants away and a Trumpian steel wall has been erected to block crossing points. Its next task may be to block thousands of Afghans fleeing the Taliban and currently making their way through Turkey.

There have been multiple accounts, from Greece and elsewhere, of refugees being expelled without their asylum applications being heard. Such so-called “pushbacks” contravene the 1951 convention. Politicians are also playing fast and loose with other principles signed up to 70 years ago. In northern Europe, Denmark’s Social Democratic government has passed a law to enable asylum seekers to be relocated thousands of miles away, while their claims are processed in a third country. The stated goal of Mette Frederiksen, the Danish prime minister, is that no more asylum applications should take place in Denmark. Her government is seeking to forcibly return hundreds of refugees to Syria – a move which is likely to be contested in the European court of human rights. Britain has criminalised migrants arriving by irregular routes, hoping thereby to force them to make asylum applications elsewhere.

Inexorably, unethically, Europe is defaulting to a cruel “fortress” strategy based on brute force and deterrence. Yet refugees make up only 0.6% of the EU’s population. The number of irregular migrants seeking to enter Europe bears no comparison to six years ago, when the Syrian civil war was at its height and Angela Merkel famously insisted “Wir schaffen das” (“We can do it”). With effective leadership and solidarity between countries, a humane approach to a complex problem would be possible. But the political will is missing. Since the migration crisis of 2015, the populist right has been allowed to dictate the terms of debate. Spooked by the rise of Matteo Salvini, Viktor Orbán and Marine Le Pen – and, in Britain, the influence of Nigel Farage – mainstream politicians across the continent have hardened their hearts, muffled their consciences and ceased to give would-be refugees a fair hearing. This lack of moral ambition betrays the spirit of the great humanitarian breakthrough made seven decades ago.

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