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Moral considerations should drive solutions to EU migrant crisis, UN rapporteur says (+video)

A UN special rapporteur on migrants says the solution to the latest European crisis lies in Western nations coordinating resettlement and regulation efforts instead of focusing on repression or detention. 

To end the escalating European migration crisis that has left thousands dead at sea over the past year, wealthy countries need to step up and legally accept more refugees, according to the UN’s special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants.

In an interview with The Guardian, the UN’s François Crépeau urged the West to coordinate efforts to resettle the refugees pouring into Europe, insisting that regulating their mobility through legal channels would work better to stem the tide of migrants than repression or detention would. His appeal highlighted the moral and humanitarian aspects of the crisis, which has become both a political and socio-economic dilemma and a test for the region’s refugee management structures.

“Saving lives should be the objective,” Mr. Crépeau said. “If we continue what we’ve done – especially in Europe – it’s not going to get better. This is only the start of the summer season, so if we’ve had over a thousand deaths in the past week, we’re probably going to see that over the coming weeks as well.”

The past week has seen more than 1,100 asylum seekers and migrants dead in the Mediterranean Sea as they fled conflict and poverty in Africa and the Middle East, the International Organization for Migration reported. The figure brings the total to more than 1,500 since January, compared to only 96 in the same period last year.

In response, EU leaders met Monday to develop a 10-point action plan that includes a program for the rapid return of migrants to their home countries and efforts to halt smuggling operations – the main channel by which refugees flee into Europe – through intelligence gathering and missions to capture and destroy smugglers’ vessels.

At a summit in Brussels to be held Thursday, the EU is also expected to focus on efforts to stabilize situations in the migrants' countries of origin, The Christian Science Monitor’s Sara Miller Llana reported Tuesday.

What many say is ultimately the only true long-term solution to the problems is helping to stabilize the economies and political strife in the origin countries. Any kind of consensus is far off but it’s increasingly an issue that cannot be overlooked, experts say.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi over the weekend offered to lead a UN-backed mission in Libya if diplomatic efforts fail. “No solution to the migrant crisis can be found without a stabilization in Libya,” Renzi told reporters Sunday. He ruled out immediate intervention that would require boots on the ground.

Crépeau’s plan, however, hones in on a different angle: Ending smuggling operations and irregular immigration by broadening the legal paths for work and citizenship for potential refugees.

“We know a great number of Syrians in particular are going to leave these countries, and if we don’t provide any official mechanism for them to do so, they will resort to smugglers,” he told The Guardian. “The inaction of Europe is actually what creates the market for smugglers.”

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), asylum systems in many European countries operate below international standards. And although 22 of 48 countries in the region participate in the UNHCR’s resettlement efforts to some capacity, “the number of resettlement places in the region remains limited, with quotas and reception and integration capacity varying widely,” the agency reported.  

Yet if spread out among nations, Crépeau said, the resettlement of one million Syrians would be more than possible. He urged acceptance, instead of fear of refugees, even as he stressed the benefits of such a coordinated opening of borders.

“It’s a much better system for everyone – you reduce the number of deaths, you reduce the smuggling business model, and you reduce the cost of asylum claims,” he told The Guardian. “Let’s not be afraid of mobility. If we develop, regulate, organize mobility we will have, in the long run, much better results.”

The problem is that immigration has become a hard sell among Europeans, making some politicians reluctant to support policies that allow more non-Europeans into the union. Adding to that challenge are the tensions heightened by the uneven distribution of asylum seekers across member states.

“The European asylum system doesn’t work,” Germany’s immigration commissioner, Aydan Özoguz, told The Washington Post. “Some countries are doing very little. We are one of the richest countries and we want to help, but it’s not okay that Germany, Sweden, and France are taking 50 percent of the refugees while other countries do nothing.”

Still, those of the same mind as Crépeau point to the consequences of inaction.

“How many deaths do European governments need to find a common solution?” Elly Schlein, a European Parliament representative from Italy, told French radio station RFI. “I understand that that they are afraid of public opinion … But I believe that, when you’re at the government, you should not only run after public opinion and should do what is right. And we have a moral and legal obligation."

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