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Angela Merkel. Emmanuel Macron and Viktor Orbán on the second day of the European Council summit in Brussels, Belgium. Photograph: EPA

The EU’s leaders are all smiles, but refugees will continue to drown

Europe isn’t suffering from a migration crisis: it’s afflicted by a humanitarian crisis. But to Europe’s leaders, refugees and migrants are not human beings, they’re statistics, or fodder for hateful political campaigns for charlatans to rise to high office.

Amid all the wrangling over an EU deal on migration, you’d think the number of refugees and migrants entering Europe was surging: it’s not. While over a million arrived on European shores in 2015, last year it was only 172,362; this year, fewer than 43,000 so far. But the real figure that matters is 12,397. That’s the number of recorded deaths between January 2014 and February 2017 of children, pensioners, men and women who spent their last minutes writhing in the sea as the Mediterranean’s waters entered their lungs. And responsibility for these deaths lie squarely with the European leadership.

This is not to absolve Britain: our nation has taken in desperately few refugees, and the official leave campaigns made the cynical decision to fan bigotry and racism during the EU referendum. But what the EU’s leaders (Theresa May included) have done is abominable, and is not commented on nearly enough. Last year, an Amnesty International report declared that the soaring death toll in the central Mediterranean was “clearly linked to failing EU policies”. The decision in April 2015 to strengthen search and rescue had hugely decreased the death toll, but it was “short-lived”, they noted.

Instead EU governments adopted a disastrous strategy of disrupting smugglers and stopping boats leaving Libya. Those responsible for preventing crossings were the reckless Libyan coastguard service, which used dangerous and indeed fatal manoeuvres. The result of all this? A threefold increase in death rates in 2017 compared with the second half of 2015. “European states have progressively turned their backs on a search and rescue strategy that was reducing mortality at sea in favour of one that has seen thousands drown,” Amnesty declared.

In nations such as Italy, Hungary and Poland, the political leaders owe their power partly to stirring up bigotry against some of the most desperate human beings on Earth. The deal last night means that the EU will have an even less humane policy, with migrant centres – or as others might call them, prisons – established to house new arrivals. And they will get away with it because the humanity of migrants and refugees has been comprehensively stripped away. There are many migrants and refugees alive now who will die in the coming weeks and months. And the current EU leaders should be held responsible for that.

 Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist

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