Although it has been five years since the 2015 migrant crisis hit Europe, thousands of people are still dying every year crossing the Mediterranean sea. In January 2019, 117 migrants drowned off the Libyan coast. In July 2019, 83 migrants drowned off the coast of Tunisia. In November 2020, 74 migrants drowned off the Libyan coast and the list of tragedies goes on. Overcrowding of boats is one of the reasons for frequent disasters. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), from the outbreak of the migrant crisis in 2015 until the end of the year 2020, more than 17,000 people have tragically died trying to cross the Mediterranean sea in the hope of seeking asylum and finding a better life in Europe. IOM also refers to the Mediterranean as “by far the world’s deadliest border.” The highest rate of deaths was recorded in 2016 – almost 5,000 people have drowned. On the other hand, IOM estimates the death toll for 2020 is far lower than the years before – 1,111 people have drowned sailing mainly from the Libyan and Tunisian coasts. It is lower due to the COVID-19 pandemic and restrictions related to it. These numbers are, however, estimated to be much higher due to the number of boats that sink without anyone knowing.
Despite the infamous humanitarian crisis, many European countries have decided to adopt a strict nationalist approach, refusing either to rescue ships at their ports or to accept immigrants. Eugenio Ambrosi, regional director for the European Union, said on point: “People are still dying at sea in enormous numbers, even after years of seeing this happen repeatedly. We have to ask ourselves, why is this still happening?”
Italy makes a great example here. In December 2018, a ship funded by the worldwide organisation Doctors Without Borders was forced to stop its activities because of Matteo Salvini, Italian Deputy Prime Minister, who threatened to seize the boat and lowered to accusing the crew of human trafficking. In July 2019, Matteo Salvini refused to allow rescue ships at Italy’s ports. However, the captain of the SeaWatch 3 could not stand looking at an inflatable raft full of migrants being stuck at the sea in very inhuman conditions for more than two weeks and decided to break the Italian law by forcing the rescue boat in the port of Lampedusa, saving the lives of many. The captain of the ship was later arrested for breaching the law and subsequently released. Her arrest is seen as a way of intimidating NGOs and activists from saving migrants on the sea.
Salvini’s decision to criminalize rescue at the Mediterranean sea caused many tragedies and suffering. Almost all organisations that were used to help migrants were forced to stop. Many people were left helpless at the sea, drowning. In January 2019, only three people survived the route from Libya to Italy and 117 people died, including two women holding their toddlers over their heads until they disappeared in the waves of the sea. Libyan coastguard was alarmed by an Italian patrol airplane who saw the incident but no one came to rescue them.
Currently, almost all of the migrants that are rescued at the sea are sent back to Libya, a very unstable war-torn country. In Libya, they face migrant detention camps where they have to endure forced labour, sexual violence, and malnutrition. This act – sending them back to Libya – however, violates both the practice of intercepting people at sea and returning them to Libya. Every person is entitled to a fair asylum process. Even if they do not fulfill the criteria of a given country and are forced to return, they cannot be sent back to a place where their lives are in danger. This is called the principle of non-refoulement. Both of them are unfortunately very often violated.
So why are we voluntarily turning our backs from the people who need our help? It is not only our moral obligation to help them, but it is also an obligation of international law. Why aren’t we saving them and why don’t we care about innocent lives?