Thursday’s migrant boat tragedy off the coast of Italy, which has left at least 200 dead and hundreds missing, should serve as an urgent wake up call to the world.
Coming only a week after Lebanon itself learned the awful reality of such disasters, when dozens of north Lebanon natives were killed when a boat carrying migrants from Indonesia to Australia capsized, it is clear that this modern trade in people, which takes advantage of the most needy and desperate individuals, must be curtailed.
The local mayor described the scene as, “horrific, like a cemetery,” with bodies upon bodies piling up. In his first trip outside of Rome, Pope Francis in July visited the island of Lampedusa, which is one of the most common landing sites for boats leaving North Africa. He described the deaths of those striving for a better life across the seas as “a thorn in the heart.”
Last year, around 15,000 migrants reached Italy and Malta, with boats swelling due to the Syrian civil war. But for all those who do arrive in one piece, there are all those who don’t. Many don’t know how to swim, or, weakened by days at sea with little food or water, are unable to save themselves when the cheap and inadequate boats fail to contend with the strong seas.
With U.N. agencies for seemingly every major issues facing humans today – from displacement to the environment – is it not time there was a dedicated agency for this specific issue? For there are myriad issues involved, and it is not as simple as a refugee problem.
First, there are the push factors, those circumstances which drive people to take such a drastic and dangerous measure. Here, as is the case with north Lebanon, local poverty and education rates must be examined. Are people capable of accessing equal rights to employment and to a basic standard of living?
In other cases, people are fleeing from persecution or war. Fearing for their lives in many cases, these people should not be forced to seek asylum at the cost of putting their lives in further danger: Other options must be made available to these desperate people.
Then there are the pull factors. In the case of Australia, the new government of Tony Abbot is seemingly doing all it can to dissuade migrants from attempting to reach its shores. But it is important than any attempts to curb immigration levels must be done in tandem with measures which do not put lives in jeopardy.
Lastly it is also imperative that the people smugglers are dealt with in the strictest terms. For there are gangs who are actually profiting from this dark trade, these desperate journeys which families are forced to take, those with nothing, who hand over all their savings with little guarantee that they will ever see dry land again.
Home and recipient countries, along with international agencies, must work together to ensure that these opportunistic people are no longer allowed to prey on the desperation of others, and to see an end to this people smuggling, which robs so many of their dreams of a new life.