Reports suggest that the majority of the 71 people who died of suffocation inside a truck found this week in Austria were refugees from Syria. If confirmed, the grisly incident would be yet another bloody episode in Syria's brutal civil war.
The conflict, now in its fifth year, has forced more than 4 million Syrians to flee the country, according to U.N. statistics. An additional 7.6 million Syrians are considered internally displaced, meaning that, since 2011, roughly half of all Syrians have been forced to leave their homes.
That dramatic, awful development is a huge factor in the current exodus toward Europe, which has reached levels some say the continent has not seen since since World War II.
The vagaries of Europe's asylum systems, the perfidy of cynical and exploitative people smugglers and the desperation of the refugees themselves have in many instances led to the same tragic result: mass death.
Just as the investigation into the grim truck incident in Austria yielded a few arrests, hundreds of migrants from the Middle East and Africa were feared drowned in the Mediterranean after their overcrowded boat sank off Libya. Residents in the western Libyan port of Zuwara took to the streets in protest against the people smugglers in their midst.
Some European governments have reacted with apprehension and indignation at the prospect of having to accommodate the new influx. Only a few, particularly Germany, have wholeheartedly accepted the responsibilities of dealing with the plight of Syria's refugees.
The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, which has diligently tracked reports of casualties since the start of the conflict, claims that more than 310,000 Syrians have died as a result of the war since 2011. Civilian deaths happen in all sorts of terrible ways — from mass executions and suicide bombings carried about jihadist groups to the almost routine barrel-bombing of populated areas by the Assad regime, t0 even wayward U.S. and coalition airstrikes.
"Refugees are fleeing fear," a spokesman for UNHCR, the U.N.'s refugee agency, told Sky News. "Refugees are not to be feared." The organization also issued a memo this week urging governments and media to embrace the use of the word "refugee" rather than "migrant," a distinction that if better appreciated could mean the ability to save more lives. From the UNHCR memo:
So, back to Europe and the large numbers of people arriving this year and last year by boats in Greece, Italy and elsewhere. Which are they? Refugees or migrants?
In fact, they happen to be both. The majority of people arriving this year in Italy and Greece especially have been from countries mired in war or which otherwise are considered to be 'refugee-producing' and for whom international protection is needed. However, a smaller proportion is from elsewhere, and for many of these individuals, the term 'migrant' would be correct.
But in the current context, they are all forced to take horrendous gambles.
"We are very sad about this terrible and horrible crime," Austrian Interior Minister Johanna Mikl-Leitner told reporters. "We are also very sad that 71 people died. . . . We need a solution for the migration flows, and we need a solution to protect refugees . . . and the best way is to create legal ways to Europe."
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