Mayday…Mayday…Mayday… Asylum Seeker Deaths at Sea

The number of asylum seekers and migrants journeying across the Mediterranean Sea in search of refuge in Europe continues to rise higher, reflecting the escalating crisis of displaced people across the world. Proportionately, as more people risk their lives on the sea, the numbers presumed to have disappeared and drowned on this journey have also increased. Morally acute questions on how these disasters continue to flourish are being raised, yet have so far failed to have any impact on refugee flows.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recently reported two shipwrecks in early May, which collectively increased the toll of people believed to have died at sea to more than 1300 in 2017. Relative to the same time a year ago, this represents a 10 percent increase in the number of deaths at sea and speaks volumes to deteriorating circumstances in parts of the Middle East, Northern Africa, and the Horn of Africa that motivate the migration. It also bodes poorly for 2017 as a potential successor to 2016, in which a record number of people died at sea.

Tighter migratory paths across Eastern European borders through Turkey have made the Central Mediterranean Sea route the preferred avenue across which volumes of people gamble their transit. Migrants continue to choose the path despite it being recognised as the most dangerous route to a potential asylum.

According to both the European Union and the UNHCR, Libya is the launch point for almost all irregular migration journeys across the Central Mediterranean Sea. Greater cooperation has been sought between the EU and Libya to deter human traffickers from encouraging desperate people. However, the patterns of migration indicate efforts aimed at preventing such movements are unlikely to succeed without more support for alternate measures that also seek to limit the number of lives lost at sea.

Currently, the EU’s collective mandate to patrol borders, under the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (EBCGA) has saved many thousands of lives at sea through its capacity to provide rapid and cohesive action. However, this collective policy has also drawn criticism from human rights agents, including Amnesty International, who have suggested the EBCGA allows states to more easily dispense their sovereign obligations to meet international laws to protect asylum seekers.

On this point, it is of note that several European media agencies reported that many of the lives lost at sea in at least one the recent shipwrecks may have been prevented if Italian coast guards had proactively reacted to distress calls made from vessels.

While the facts and truths of these reports will no doubt surface at some given point, states must acknowledge the responsibility they play in creating human suffering when they fail to abide by agreed conventions. This includes the UN Convention on The Law of the Sea (signed in 1984) in which it is stated that “Every State shall require the master of a ship flying its flag to render assistance to any person found at sea in danger of being lost [and] to proceed with all possible speed to the rescue of persons in distress.”

Preventing deaths at sea will require an array of solutions, including Filippo Grandi’s (UNHCR) call “to address the root causes which lead people to move.” In other words, it seeks to better understand and resolve conflict and its causes. Yet while this remains a complex measure to achieve, greater patience and understanding must be extended to people seeking refuge. As defined in Articles 3 and 14 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” and “Everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy, in other countries, asylum for protection.”

Carolina Morison