Migrants to Europe
Migrants on an overcrowded wooden boat wait to be rescued in the Mediterranean Sea (File) Image Credit: AP

While the world was busy last week with the news over the Titanic sub that had imploded underwater in the Atlantic with five people on board, there was hardly any concern for a migrant boat disaster during that time that had killed more than 500 Pakistanis, Syrians, and Egyptians in the Mediterranean who had overcrowded the boat to sail from Libya to Italy.

Last week, another migrant boat disaster drowned at least 35 people, including pregnant women and kids, near the Spanish coast, but no one noticed it.

Many, including former US President Barack Obama, have criticised the world’s indifference to migrants’ shipwreck tragedy. The unfortunate drowning of migrants and sinking of their overcrowded boats did not just happen last week. The International Organisation of Migration (IOM)’s Missing Migrant Project has counted at least 441 migrant deaths in the Central Mediterranean in the first three months of 2023, the deadliest first quarter on record since 2017.

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More than 20,000 migrant deaths were already recorded in the last decade on the Central Mediterranean Route only, even before last week’s terrible tragedy near the Greek coast. Among those deaths, only 13 per cent of the dead bodies have been recovered from the sea and buried in Spain, Italy, and Greece. Among those buried, many have not been identified.

Dangerous routes

Besides the Central and Western Mediterranean routes, a large number of migrant deaths at sea take place on the Northwest African Maritime route to the Canary Islands. Migrants cross the sea to reach the European shore in packed and unseaworthy boats, and many of them sink before reaching their destination leading to massive loss of life. The sea journey from the West African coast to the Canary Islands is extremely dangerous and long.

The land routes are no better as a higher number may have perished on migrating through the Sahara Desert. Behind each death, there is a family that is struggling to cope with that loss. Despite the tragedy of this humongous nature continuing for many years, the world has decided to be apathetic to it.

The European Union, which has anointed itself as the world’s voice of human rights and protection of international law, has a lethal disregard for all it preaches regarding migrants trying to cross its border. The image of the lifeless body of a Syrian toddler washed ashore on a Turkish beach in 2015 that had aroused sympathy and solidarity with refugees across Europe has almost disappeared after eight years.

European liberalism?

The European liberalism that talks of freedom and equality goes missing when it comes to refugees fleeing wars and civil wars in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, to those refugees escaping from the war in Ukraine. The EU has completely disregarded the appeal of various humanitarian organisations to provide migrants with safe and legal crossing of land and sea borders.

The UN Human Rights Office (OHCHR) brought out a Report in 2021 that clearly points out how the laws and policies of European countries related to search, rescue, and protection of the migrants in the central Mediterranean Sea have ignored the fundamental human rights of migrants originating from the Libyan coast.

The Report highlights five key areas where the EU countries have failed to honour their commitment to international humanitarian laws and norms: a) failures to provide prompt and effective assistance to migrants in distress, b) dangerous rescue and interception practices; c) pushbacks at sea, intercept and return migrants from international waters to Libya; d) actions to criminalise, impede or halt the work of humanitarian organisations and other human rights defenders; and e) failures to ensure safe disembarkation and adequate reception of migrants, including being at risk of arbitrary immigration detention and facing obstacles to accessing immediate assistance such as medical care.

Rise of right-wing politics

With the increasing number of migrants arriving due to conflicts, climate crisis, and growing inequality, Europe’s migration policies are in chaos and lack coherence or coordination.

It is not the media focus on the Titanic sub-search but the rise of right-wing politics in Europe that has pushed protecting migrants in the sea to the margin.

Though the OHCHR Report of 2021 is based on its investigation of one migration route, the search and rescue policies of the European countries towards migrants arriving through all the sea routes continue to be discriminatory, inhuman, and illegal.

The real tragedy is that most of these deaths and disappearances are preventable. Still, European countries are more inclined to go along with domestic right-wing groups’ demands than to respect the human rights of migrants.

The European countries must recommit themselves to respecting international human rights laws and norms and provide the necessary protection for migrants at sea.