It feels like we hear the same kinds of tragic stories every spring — just when the temperatures begin to rise, stories emerge of of scores of people drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. Just last year, shipwrecks in late August 2014 left up to 700 people dead. In 2013, the Lampedusa shipwreck that killed 360 migrants captured international attention. And now, rescue teams have been working for days to find any survivors who may be clinging to the wreckage of a migrant ship that capsized this weekend, possibly killing at least 300 people. Why do these terrible accidents keep happening year after year, and who can be held responsible?
Well, the dramatic problem of mass illegal immigration to Europe from Africa and the Middle East has only worsened in the past few years. So far this spring, thousands of migrants have been rescued from the Mediterranean Sea. Over the weekend from April 10 to 13, almost 8,500 migrants were rescued, according to the Italian Coast Guard, which said it received over 20 SOS distress calls on Monday, April 13, alone. But as valiant as rescue crews' efforts have been to save the enormous numbers of migrants, thousands die every year, and hundreds have already perished since the start of this year's "migration season."
Every spring, huge numbers of people fleeing violent conflict in the Middle East and Africa climb aboard ships commandeered by smugglers, who promise to take them across the Mediterranean to a calmer life in Europe. This week alone, stories of two large sunken passenger ships have made headlines, though dozens more have also capsized or gone missing.
On April 15, a boat capsized 80 miles off the coast of Libya and was feared to have left up to 400 passengers dead. Now, another boat, which sank off the coast of Libya overnight on Saturday night, may have left 700 people dead. What has enabled the treacherous trend of migration season, which is so profitable for smugglers but so often fatal to their passengers?
For years, Europe has been struggling with a massive intake of illegal immigrants from war-torn countries, but in the last three years, the problem has intensified massively. In October 2013, Italy launched a search and rescue operation called Mare Nostrum intended to save the lives of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean. Though the program saved tens of thousands of people, the government ended the program in 2014 when Frontex, the European Union agency that manages international borders, launched their own operation, called Triton.
Mare Nostrum began as a response to the sinking of a migrant ship off Lampedusa. At a briefing in October 2014, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees said:
UNHCR has welcomed Mare Nostrum, which has contributed to the rescue of around 150,000 refuges and migrants since it began a year ago as a response to two tragedies off the coast of Lampedusa, where over 600 refugees and migrants died. Today, UNHCR reiterates its call for Europe to commit more resources to rescue at sea in the Mediterranean.
The level of desperation among many of those involved, fleeing war, persecution and violence, including from Syria require our concerted efforts to respond. This trend began in June and July last year, before Mare Nostrum was established, and has continued in 2014.
The UNHCR called for a joint European response, making use of international resources instead of launching separate, disjointed programs.
Politicians and activists claim the decision to cancel Mare Nostrum was a poor choice and led directly to the deaths of thousands of migrants. John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia Director, said in 2014:
Frontex's Triton operation does not begin to meet the needs of thousands of migrants and refugees, including those forced to flee war and persecution in the Middle East and Africa. The suggestion that it could replace Mare Nostrum could have catastrophic and deadly consequences in the Mediterranean.
The death tolls keep increasing each year, as migrants do not have any feasible legal option to leave instability and violence in their home countries and immigrate safely to Europe. Traveling with smugglers is anything but safe. Not only do they sometimes abandon migrants on ships when the going gets tough, but they lock them on the lower levels, Titanic-style, which can make escape impossible. One man who left Nigeria after Boko Haram killed his parents told the International Organization for Migration:
The Libyan smugglers told us when we saw that we had to stay in the hold, close to the engine. We refused. But they had knives and they beat us. We did not have any choice. People on the top two decks had life jackets. But they did not give any to us.
In the wake of this weekend's ongoing tragedy — only 24 bodies have been recovered so far, according to the Italian Coast Guard — Federica Mogherini, the European Union foreign policy chief, said the EU had a responsibility to protect "human dignity."
We have a political and moral duty to exercise our role. The Mediterranean is our sea and we have to act together as Europeans. The European Union was built and is built around the protection of human rights, human dignity and the life of human people — we need to be consistent in that.
Since January, 35,000 people have migrated across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Over 900 have died already, almost 10 times the number of casualties in the same period last year. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi called for an emergency E.U. summit this week, calling the situation with illegal migration in the Mediterranean a "new slave trade."
Sandro Gozi, the Italian minister for European affairs, told Le Monde there is "a total absence" of European policy on dealing with mass numbers of refugees arriving.
We can't act as if each tragedy is the last while crossing our fingers that another one doesn't happen.
EU ministers are meeting on Monday in Luxembourg to discuss tactics to handle the tragic consequences of the current lack of policy.