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Four years of growing indifference - Regina Catrambone

Refugees and migrants wave as they approach the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos on a dinghy at sunrise, in this file photo. Photo: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

Refugees and migrants wave as they approach the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos on a dinghy at sunrise, in this file photo. Photo: Alkis Konstantinidis/Reuters

In the summer of 2013 my family and I were sailing around the central Mediterranean on holiday. All of a sudden, a beige coat on the sea surface bore witness to desperate migrant crossings, and it was evident that people were losing their lives out at sea.

Additionally, Pope Francis’ words against the globalisation of indifference and the tragic shipwreck of October 3, 2013, off Lampedusa pushed us to act. So, we used our funds and talents 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 mission that brought to safety over 3,000 children, women and men in 60 days alone. Just over a year later, in September 2015, Alan Kurdi’s death shocked the entire world, and the international community declared that similar tragedies should not happen anymore. Unfortunately, these were just words. No effective action was taken.

Since then, an unknown number of people from Africa and the Middle East have 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, and 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’ve also seen growing numbers of people trying to cross the Mexi­can border, many dying in the process of finding a future in the United States.

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 or transit 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.

What has changed since MOAS’ inception?

Four years later, little progress has been recorded. The international community still lacks the capacity and willingness to effectively safeguard human rights. The numbers of walls and wired fences are on the rise and national governments cultivate the illusion of safety to the detriment of the most vulnerable.

After the old Balkan route was closed, this summer a new one has opened, used by more and more migrants and refugees from the Middle East, mainly from Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. With the Serbian border to Europe impassable, many attempt 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.

More recently however, the western Mediterranean route between Spain and Morocco has seen an unprecedented number of migrant arrivals. Between January and July 2018, 27,600 people were recorded in Spain, compared to Italy and Greece where 19,000 and 16,000 people landed.

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

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

All you can hope to achieve is to find other more dangerous ways to seek sanctuary. Safety and security are not a priority for criminal networks smuggling desperate people. Their only concern is to increase profits. In some cases, as proven by the Aegean route – where sea crossings have drastically dropped since March 2016, but still occur – 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 over 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 province, and newly-arrived Rohingya added to previous flows of desperate individuals.

This arrival en masse put a strain on national Bangladeshi resources. 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 only received a minimum amount of the funds expected so far. It is difficult to predict the long-term consequences of such a catastrophe but it will most probably affect Europe too.

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 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 emotional distance from current tragedies.

If the Rohingya crisis has almost been forgotten, the situation in the Mediterranean isn’t 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 Aquarius, some ships didn’t 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 a co-founder and director of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS).

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