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Citizenship

950 people just died crossing the Mediterranean, and we're not doing enough about it.

Imagine this: you’re living a quiet, normal life in a stable country. You’ve had the chance to go to school, have a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle, and a happy family life.

Now imagine that, over the course of a few short years, that life was turned into a living nightmare.

That’s the situation affecting millions of people in Syria, Libya, and Iraq right now.

Take a look at these statistics from the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency:

“The Asylum Trends 2014 report puts the estimated number of new asylum applications lodged in industrialized countries throughout the year at 866,000, a 45 per cent increase from 2013, when 596,600 claims were registered. The 2014 figure is the highest since 1992, at the beginning of the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

And those numbers only represent those lucky enough to be able to file an official request for asylum. Even then, it can take years for asylum requests to be processed and thousands of people now find themselves stateless and in legal limbo.

Today - there are over 50 million displaced people, by far the highest that number has been since World War II.

The US public has been largely insulated from the effects of these refugees because of the huge geographic distance between conflict zones in the Middle East and North Africa.

The exact opposite is true for Europe however.

Over the past five years, hundreds of thousands of desperate people have crammed into leaky boats and tried to make the crossing to Europe. Many of those have died in the crossing.

Just this weekend, it’s estimated that as many as 950 people may have perished from a single disaster.

It’s heartbreaking and unacceptable. It seems that this tragedy may have been the final catalyst that will push the European Community to act. Exactly what that action will be is another story.

That’s where things get complicated.

The current flow of migrants is unprecedented in modern European history. Southern EU member states like Italy and Greece have been completely overwhelmed by the crisis. Until 2013 the Italian Navy ran a program called “Mare Nostrum” (literally “Our Sea”) which was efficient at helping stranded refugees but was prohibitively expensive. Because of political pressure, the program was ended and Frontex, the EU border agency, has taken over policing of the Mediterranean.

Frontex, like many EU institutions however, is woefully underfunded and has so far failed to adequately police the area.

Through all of this, it’s important to remember that Southern Europe is still in the midst of a major economic crisis. Sovereign debt remains untenably high and youth unemployment is upwards of 40% in some countries.

This has created a situation where far right, anti-immigration (and some would say racist) political parties have begun to thrive. A particularly illustrative example of this was from Matteo Salvini, head of the Italian “Northern League,” who recently advocated “leaving the migrants out at sea.”

His comments understandably sparked outrage but it’s hardly a fringe opinion. The Northern League is a regular coalition partner in Italian governments and has seen it’s popularity spike in the wake of Salvini’s comments.

Now - I’m not saying this issue will be easily fixed. It won’t.

But this kind of rhetoric doesn’t get us anywhere. At the heart of global citizenship is a desire to do right by your neighbor, whether they be Italian, American, Syrian, Sudanese, Libyan or otherwise.

What’s clear is that we’re in a situation where millions of people are going through hardship that no human being should have to face. It’s up to us to do what we can to make them feel welcome.

The EU needs to find a solution to this crisis, and fast.

In the meantime, there’s a lot we as citizens can do to help. The UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, is suffering from a massive funding gap.

You can donate here to help make sure that, right now, emergency aid gets to those who need it most.

You’ll be glad you did.