Can we stop the Mediterranean from becoming a Refugee Graveyard?

By Adam Levenson | (Informed Comment) | – –

The World Addresses the Syrian Refugee Crisis

We are reminded about the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis on a regular basis because of the recurring tragic accidents in the Mediterranean Sea as refugees, not only Syrians but also from various North African and Arab nations, attempt to reach Europe.

In April, as many as 500 refugees drowned after their ship capsized en route to Italy. Speaking about a different incident in May, UNCHR spokesperson Barbara Molinario explained, “usually nobody really knows the exact number of people on a boat like that,” since smugglers tend to overcrowd vessels.

Apart from attempting to solve the conflicts in refugees’ countries of origin, regional and global actors have pledged funds to entities like the United Nations to deal with this humanitarian crisis. For example the International Relations Online blog, part of American University’s School of International Service, created a data visualization to show the amounts that various states have pledged to support two U.N. programs, the Regional Refugee and Resilience Plan and the Syria Response Plan. The chart explains how almost 40 nations and private donors have contributed $895 million (USD), which have reached 4.8 million refugees. However, not all pledges are fulfilled. According to Concern Worldwide , several nations have yet to donate funds promised at a February conference in London.

It is important to stress that assistance for the refugee crisis is coming from other sources as well. NGOs and charities have mobilized to support refugees by collecting donations (e.g. funds, clothes and books), while many European families open their homes to migrants.

Ultimately, these well-intentioned initiatives are only part of the answer as they address the effect, not the cause, of the problem. As long as extreme violence persists, we will continue to witness a massive exodus of people who flee their homes to find safety elsewhere.


Adam Levenson of 2U Inc collaborated with American University’s School of International Service to provide this analysis. The original version of the analysis appears on the IR Online master of international relations blog.

Brought to you by American University’s International Relations Online program.

Related video added by Juan Cole:

AFP: “Rescue of migrants in the Mediterranean”

4 Responses

  1. This piece repeats a serious misunderstanding of who the people attempting to reach European shores are. To call them all “refugees” just muddles the situation. The term “refugee” has a well-defined, precise definition under international law. In the case of those attempting to reach Europe, as well as those in similar situations in other parts of the world, they are illegal migrants until appropriate authorities determine that they qualify for refugee status.

    The formal, internationally recognized, definition of a refugee is set out in the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees which came into force in 1954. That definition follows below.

    “A person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or who, not having a nationality and being outside the country of his former habitual residence as a result of such events, is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to return to it.”

    The definition of “refugee” does not include those who are fleeing generalized violence not directed specifically at them. Nor does it include those who are seeking to reach a destination for a better life, better job, or to escape poverty.

    Many of those attempting to reach Europe, particularly from various African countries, as well as many from Afghanistan and other places, are not refugees. They, understandably are seeking a better life, and their cases will have to be sorted out by appropriate authorities, usually representatives of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees. European countries cannot, and should not, be expected to be the final destination of illegal migrants who are not refugees, and many will no doubt be returned to their home countries. The status of “refugee” should not be diluted; it should be reserved for those who truly meet the definition.

    • Well, that’s cold. So a Syrian fleeing a beseiged city where they are starved and bombed is not a refugee in your book as long as they don’t belong to some special minority group or something. They are a refugee in ordinary parlance and in humanity. Moreover, whatever you call them, it is essential to take more seriously the cause of their migration and enable them to return home (but meantime help and admit them), because big populations of refugees are destabilizing.

      • What is or is not “in my book” (to use your phrase) has nothing to do with my comment. The point is there is a very precise, legal definition of “refugee,” and if we begin to fudge the definition to include illegal economic migrants and those fleeing generalized violence and poverty by trying to circumvent host nations’ legal immigration laws and regulations, we do a grave disservice to those who truly are refugees. You will expand the definition to the point where it has no meaning.

  2. It’s not just the violence that they’re fleeing, it’s the environmental collapse of the region as well. Much of the violence is caused by the environmental collapse. It’s a nasty feedback loop, one that’s exacerbated by the feedback loops that global warming is causing.

    Either we save them, or we’ll also lose ourselves.

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