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Four years of growing indifference - Regina Catrambone

Indifference seems to be the only answer politics and civil society can give

Photo: MOAS/Jashim Salam 2017

Photo: MOAS/Jashim Salam 2017

In the summer of 2013 my family and I were on holiday, sailing around the Central Mediterranean.

All of a sudden, a beige coat surfaced from the sea, bearing witness to desperate migrant crossings. It was evident that people were losing their lives out at sea.

Pope Francis’ words against the globalisation of indifference and the tragic shipwreck on October 3 of 2013 off Lampedusa, pushed us to act.

We used our funds and skills to buy and refurbish a vessel that could mitigate the loss of lives at sea, and founded MOAS (Migrant Offshore Aid Station).

In August 2014, MOAS’ vessel – the Phoenix – sailed for its first search-and-rescue (SAR) mission that brought to safety more than 3,000 children, women and men in 60 days.

Just over a year later, in September 2015, Aylan Kurdi’s death shocked the entire world, and the international community declared that similar tragedies should not happen anymore. Unfortunately, these were just words, and no effective action was taken.

Unfortunately, these were just words, and no effective action was taken

Since then, an unknown number of people from Africa and the Middle East died along the Aegean and Central Mediterranean route.

The Balkan route saw hundreds of thousands of desperate people on the move looking for a safe place in Europe. They seemed to be slowly dismissed because regional authorities tended to close national borders.

The Andaman route in Southeast Asia became known for the so-called 'ghost boats' of vulnerable Rohingya stranded at sea.

More recently we have also seen growing numbers of people trying to cross the Mexican border, many dying in the process of finding a future in the US.

The number of people who perish while crossing borders to seek sanctuary is rising dramatically.

Climate change and protracted conflicts – like those ravaging Syria and Yemen with no solution yet in sight – push thousands of people to leave their countries of origin in search of a better future and in a desperate attempt to survive.

An estimated 68 million people are currently on the move, but no safe and legal routes have been established to stop unnecessary deaths so far.

An estimated 68 million people are currently on the move

What’s new since MOAS’ inception?

Four years on, little progress has been recorded, and the international community still lacks the capacity and willingness to effectively safeguard human rights.

The number of walls and wired fences is on the increase, and governments cultivate the illusion of safety to the detriment of the most vulnerable.

After the old Balkan route was closed, a new one was opened in the summer of 2018. More migrants and refugees from the Middle East - mainly Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan - started using it. With the Serbian border to Europe impassable, many attempted to reach Croatia via Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The numbers of people using the Central Mediterranean route have also diminished because of major changes in search and rescue operations at sea and closed ports in Italy and other European countries.

However, most recently the Western Mediterranean route between Spain and Morocco has seen an unprecedented number of migrant arrivals.

Between January and July, 27,600 migrants were recorded in Spain, compared to Italy and Greece where 19,000 and 16,000 people landed.

Both the new Balkan route and Western Mediterranean crossings prove that stopping migration flows is impossible.

The new Balkan route and Western Mediterranean crossings prove that stopping migration flows is impossible

All one could hope to achieve is finding other, more dangerous, ways to seek sanctuary. Safety and security are not a priority for criminal networks smuggling desperate people. Their only concern is increasing profits.

In some cases, as proven by the Aegean route – where sea crossings have drastically dropped since March 2016 – official statements might claim victory after the EU-Turkey deal, but vulnerable human beings still die or are left stranded in overcrowded camps.

In Southeast Asia, the massive Rohingya exodus pushed more than 700,000 people to cross the border from Myanmar into Bangladesh.

In August 2017, the stateless Rohingya Muslim community faced a new wave of violence, especially in Northern Rakhine, and newly-arrived Rohingya added to previous flows of desperate individuals.

This arrival en masse put a strain on national Bangladeshi resources, and the inaction of the international community – combined with climate disasters – is only making the situation worse.

Due to the unfolding monsoon and cyclone season, at least 1.3 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance, but the 2018 Joint Response Plan has received only a minimum amount of the funds expected so far.

It is difficult to predict long-term consequences of such a catastrophe, but most probably they will affect Europe as well.

Last year, for instance, more than 9,000 Bangladeshi nationals landed in Italy by sea to escape extreme poverty and find a better future.

How many more will be forced to leave their country because of a lack of decent living and job opportunities after Bangladesh was left alone to face such a humanitarian and environmental catastrophe?

Who knows. And, unfortunately, who cares?

Indifference seems to be the only answer politics and civil society can give. Apart from some noble examples of humanitarian groups, growing indifference and cynicism eradicate empathy and increase the emotional distance from current tragedies.

If the Rohingya crisis has been almost forgotten, the situation in the Mediterranean is not any better.

After many humanitarian and merchant ships were left adrift with medical emergencies, pregnant women and vulnerable children on board, the risk is that vessels in distress will not receive adequate assistance anymore.

As confirmed by some of the 141 migrants rescued by French NGO vessel MV Aquarius, some ships did not assist them even though they were in distress.

This is a serious infringement of international law provisions and a worrying sign of inhumanity.

Ultimately, the only question we have to ask ourselves is: “How can we improve our shared society? What can we do to build a better world?”

In my view, we can only focus on restoring rule of law, as well as human rights and dignity in order to protect those who are forced to leave their homeland.

Dismantling our well-established heritage of human rights will lead us again to an uncertain future of abuse and violence, leaving entire generations in a limbo of hopelessness and marginalisation.

Regina Catrambone is co-founder and director of MOAS.

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