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EuropeThe Observer view on the EU's refugee crisis | Observer editorial

The Observer view on the EU’s refugee crisis | Observer editorial

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Scenes of devastation and desperation at the burnt-out refugee camp at Moria, on the Greek island of Lesbos, are powerful reminders that Europe’s migrant crisis never really ended. The response of EU member states and close neighbours such as Britain has, with some exceptions, once again been shamefully inadequate. The fact that these failures are familiar does not lessen the immediate, dreadful human impact of this latest tragedy, nor does it obviate the urgent need to find lasting solutions.

If fire had not destroyed most of the Moria camp last week, leaving up to 13,000 people without food, water and shelter, it’s a safe bet most of Europe would have continued to turn a blind eye to what was already a scandal on its doorstep. Repeated pleas by local people and the Greek government for more EU support and solidarity would have continued to be ignored. Pictures of small children and bereft families, deprived of all they own, squatting by the roadside or in filthy doorways, have pricked consciences – at least for now.

Charities hope the disaster will prove a permanent turning point. “The Moria camp was already unfit for humans before the fire, with four times as many people than it was built for,” said Francesco Rocca, head of the Red Cross and Red Crescent. “Enough is enough. Now is the time to show some humanity and move these people to a healthy, safe and humane place. There are 4,000 children in Moria and no child should have to endure this.”

Germany has again taken the lead in offering help, as it did during the 2015 refugee crisis. Plans have been made to transfer 400 unaccompanied minors to 10 European countries, with about 150 going to Germany. The EU commission said about 1,600 people would be given temporary shelter aboard a ferry. After visiting the area, commission vice-president Margaritis Schinas promised a larger, more modern facility would be built at the same location.

These are mere stop-gap measures and many locals and migrants oppose replacing the destroyed camp at all. But, as in the past, political obstacles at the national level are preventing a more comprehensive response. Several German regions and cities have offered to take in refugees. In Berlin, about 3,000 people took to the streets last week to demand a more generous attitude. “We have room!” they shouted. Moria was a “camp of shame”.

Yet Germany’s interior minister, Horst Seehofer, a critic of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s now-revoked 2015 open-door policy, said the focus should be on providing “help on the ground”. Such caution reflects continuing Europe-wide concern about a resurgence of the anti-immigrant sentiment that has boosted far-right populist and ultra-nationalist groups. It also reflects a divided EU’s repeated failure to agree a common migration and asylum policy based on shared responsibility, though it says new proposals are imminent.

Britain’s reaction to Moria is even more deeply unsatisfactory. Priti Patel, the home secretary, has yet to respond to a letter from the Labour peer Lord Dubs urging admission of unaccompanied children. “The government cannot keep dodging the issue,” he wrote. But it seems determined to try. When the Médecins Sans Frontières charity asked Patel in March to accept more children from Moria and other overcrowded Greek camps threatened by Covid-19, she did not deign to reply.

Quite how Boris Johnson hopes to establish a leading role for “global Britain” when it ducks its share of responsibility for tackling international migration, one of the great global problems of the day, is hard to fathom. Patel pretends to care about the safety of relatively small numbers of migrants crossing the Channel, over which rightwing bigots and xenophobes have kicked up an enormous fuss. Yet she and other ministers have nothing to say about the catastrophe in Moria and no help to offer. How small minded. How demeaning. How very un-British.

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