Rescue of Thousands at Sea Highlights Dangers of 'Migration Season'

After a four-day Italian Coast Guard rescue operation pulled more than 8,000 North African migrants from the Mediterranean Sea, the United Nations on Tuesday called for greater resources to help save growing numbers of refugees trying to cross into Europe.

It is the beginning of “migration season,” the time of year when refugees from countries like Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Eritrea are most likely to attempt the dangerous crossing to escape war-torn homelands—and often find themselves trapped at sea due to unsafe and chaotic conditions on smuggling ships.

While thousands were rescued over the weekend, hundreds more are still missing, and at least nine are confirmed to have drowned. One ship which left Monday carrying 500 people capsized within 24 hours; only 144 have been rescued.

“When the weather improves… we may have many more arrivals,” Save the Children Italy spokesperson Michele Prosperi told the BBC on Tuesday.

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According to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 500 people have died since the start of the year, not including Tuesday’s shipwreck. That figure is already 30 times more than that for the same period in 2014 and officially makes the Mediterranean the world’s deadliest crossing.

But what’s worse is that for many refugees, there is often no better option.

“The war changed everything,” one survivor, Aali, told UNHCR. The 21-year-old Libyan recounted how he fled after his brother was killed and his food shop was torched by militants. “Was there really an alternative to this dangerous sea journey?”

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The rising statistics show that not enough resources are being used to address the influx of migrants, and that without proper search and rescue operations at sea, many more will die on the journey, UNHCR said.

Italy’s “Mare Nostre” program, which sent ships into international waters to intercept smuggling boats, ended last fall when it was deemed too costly. A more limited program focused on border security, rather than rescue, was instituted instead.

EU migration commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told the European Parliament on Monday, “The unprecedented influx of migrants at our borders, and in particular refugees, is unfortunately the new norm and we will need to adjust our responses accordingly.”

As of now, the Coast Guard often has to ask private and commercial vessels for help transporting refugees—as it did during this week’s rescue bid, recruiting seven ships bound for Libya to help the boats in distress and take survivors to Sicily.

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) announced Monday that it would partner with the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS), a humanitarian operation set up by a family in 2013 in response to two migrant ships perishing at sea.

“Europe has turned its back on people fleeing some of the worst humanitarian crises of our time,” said MSF general director Arjan Hehenkamp. “The decision to close doors and build fences means that men, women, and children are forced to risk their lives and take a desperate journey across the sea. Ignoring this situation will not make it go away. Europe has both the resources and the responsibility to prevent more deaths on its doorstep and must act in order to do so.”

MOAS director Martin Xuereb added, “Our motivation is simple. No one deserves to die, and we will do everything in our power to ensure that those who feel compelled to undertake this treacherous sea crossing in makeshift vessels do not drown.”

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