EU is in denial on rising migrant deaths
More than 160 migrants died when their boat capsized off the coast of Libya this month as they were trying to reach Italy. Last week, at least three migrants drowned and dozens were lost at sea after a boat carrying almost 50 people sank off the Greek Cyclades islands.
A few years ago reports such as these would make headlines across the world and especially within the EU. Recently, however, incidents involving migrants have passed unnoticed, as the EU seems to have insulated itself against the humanitarian disasters playing out on its doorstep, or even within its territories. The EU seems to be pretending that migrants no longer exist, or that their tragedies no longer matter.
Migrant deaths are now a daily occurrence in many parts of the world, but nowhere as starkly as the EU. After a slight dip in 2020, mainly due to the border closures resulting from the global pandemic, migrant movements and accompanying disasters picked up in 2021.
A UN report earlier this month said that at least 4,834 migrants have died in 2021 while attempting to cross borders. The death toll this year is more than 600 higher than in the previous 12 months, the report said, while a total of 45,843 migrants have died in attempted border crossings since 2014.
A fair share of these deaths occurred in and around the EU, as the region continues to be one of the most attractive parts of the world for migrants, partly because of its location — it is close to some of the most impoverished and conflict-ridden countries in Africa, as well as Asia and the Middle East.
Almost 28,000 deaths, or over 60 percent of the toll since 2014, resulted from drowning and a large percentage of these took place in the Mediterranean Sea, a favorite route for migrants, as well as people smugglers. According to the International Organization of Migration, a UN body, more than 23,000 migrants have died in the Mediterranean. Migrants have also died of suffocation in trucks, perished from exposure on Europe’s frontiers, or been run over or shot.
A UN report earlier this month said that at least 4,834 migrants have died in 2021 while attempting to cross borders.
Ranvir. S. Nayar
While Europe witnesses a rising number of migrant deaths, it has stopped keeping figures on the fatalities or, indeed, any data related to the issue, the UN body says.
Indeed, in recent years, despite daily incidents at its borders and thousands of migrants knocking on its doors, the EU has chosen not only to look away, but also has become complicit in the deaths, cutting back or even ending search-and-rescue operations in the waters around its borders. Moreover, it has withdrawn naval boats from zones in the Mediterranean and Atlantic Ocean.
The EU has also adopted the controversial policy of funding the navies of war-torn countries such as Libya, asking them to act as its watchdog, and arrest migrants caught at sea and return them to Africa. The Libyan coast guard has intercepted almost 24,000 migrants in the Mediterranean and taken them back to Libya. Human rights organizations have condemned this practice, saying that it not only endangers the lives of migrants, but also exposes them to torture at the hands of the Libyan forces.
UN officials estimate that about 31,500 migrants were intercepted and returned to Libya in 2021, compared with almost 11,900 migrants the previous year, according to the IOM. About 980 migrants died in 2020, the UN agency said.
The main reason behind Brussels’ inhumane stance on migrant deaths seems to be the rise of far-right parties in most EU countries. Indeed, the political discourse in many nations now is driven by far-right leaders. For instance, with the French presidential elections due in April 2022, far-right parties appear to be dictating the mood of the nation, while left-wing parties are nowhere to be seen. The picture is much the same in the Netherlands, Austria, Italy and Switzerland.
The mass influx of migrants in 2015-16 — after then German Chancellor Angela Merkel took the politically courageous, but humane, approach of opening German borders to migrants fleeing war in Iraq and Syria — has been blamed for the rise of the far right in Europe. Since then, most politicians have preferred to look the other way, even as thousands of migrants continued to die on their watch or on their borders.
This inhumane attitude has cost almost 50,000 lives in under seven years, and it is time the EU put an end to these needless deaths. It is, of course a herculean task for any country to curb migration, especially in a world that has never been as unequal as it is today. However, the least Europe’s leaders can do is boost rescue operations and offer shelter for migrants already on their territory. The migrants may not be European citizens, but that does not reduce the value of their lives. This basic principle should be respected in letter and spirit, and not just given lip service as has become the norm.
- Ranvir S. Nayar is managing editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India, which encompasses publishing, communication, and consultation services.