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The Mediterranean Has Become a Morgue for Migrants. Canada Must Help

04/21/2015 06:13 EDT | Updated 06/21/2015 05:59 EDT
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The Italian Coast Guard with ship Bruno Gregoretti, carrying survivors and victims of a sea disaster in Valletta's Grand Harbour, Monday, April 20 2015. A smuggler's boat crammed with hundreds of people overturned off Libya's coast on Saturday as rescuers approached, causing what could be the Mediterranean's deadliest known migrant tragedy and intensifying pressure on the European Union Sunday to finally meet demands for decisive action. So far rescuers saved 28 people a recovered 24 bodies. (AP Photo/Lino Azzopardi)

The Mediterranean -- long popularly associated with yachts, glamour, beauty and holidays -- has, in recent years, become a graveyard for refugees and migrants. Beaches, such as those of the Italian island of Lampedusa, have become morgues, as dozens and even hundreds of bodies at a time have washed up on shore or been recovered on the high seas.

It is a crisis that has, at long last, garnered considerable international attention -- from European leaders, media and the public -- with two back-to-back tragedies of staggering proportions in recent days. An estimated 400 migrants and then a few days later, as many as 900 migrants, lost their lives in two separate capsizing incidents in the seas between Libya and Italy over the past week.

Concrete steps must be taken to stem this sorrowful tide of deaths at sea and better guarantee the rights and safety of refugees and migrants seeking to reach Europe. Canada must press and encourage European allies to take such action urgently. Canada should also consider our own measures to assist, such as a more generous contribution to resettling Syrian refugees to Canada. Syrians often turn to ships out of desperation, given the limited options available for leaving teeming, dangerous refugee camps behind and reaching places of greater safety.

The number of deaths have been mounting over the years. The International Organization of Migration estimates that somewhere in the range of 20,000 women, men and children have drowned in the Mediterranean between 2000 and 2014, while trying to reach safety and new lives in Europe. In 2014 alone 3,500 lives were lost as overcrowded, dilapidated and unseaworthy ships turned journeys to safety into journeys to death.

The numbers of deaths in the first few months of 2015 have skyrocketed; around 1,600 women, men and children have drowned already. Amnesty International estimates that one person out of every 23 who have taken to the Mediterranean this year in hopes of making it to safety in Europe have instead drowned at sea.

What explains such a tragedy?

It begins in the countries from which people have fled in the first place. The majority of people gambling with their lives as they board these ships have escaped from devastating armed conflict, grave human rights violations, collapsed states, and increasingly active terrorist and armed groups in such countries as Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq. There is, needless to say, nothing casual or fanciful about their decisions to flee.

It continues in Libya, which has become a transit point for the bulk of refugees and migrants trying to reach Europe. Libya because it has become, over the past few decades, a country where many migrants have found work and temporary residence. Libya as well because the anarchy that has taken hold in the country since long-time strongman President Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in 2011 has made it easy for unscrupulous criminals -- keen to exploit human misery -- to operate at will, fill ships well beyond their limit and set off to Europe.

That lawlessness in Libya has also turned the country into a human rights nightmare, with particularly grave dangers for foreigners. Migrants are seen by some of the country's militia groups as having been on-side with the Gaddafi government, and are now targeted for retaliation. It appears as well that some migrants may be at risk as ISIL forces take hold in Libya. Very understandable, therefore, that migrants are increasingly desperate to leave Libya behind as quickly as they can.

The final piece of the story is the disgraceful decision taken by the Italian government in late 2014, under pressure from other European states, to abandon its Mare Nostrum search and rescue program. The assertion was that coming to the aid of migrant ships in distress was encouraging more ships to set off, confident they would be saved if misfortune hit.

Out on the Mediterranean's often rough, cruel seas, a European Union run program, Triton, with far less resources, smaller ships and fewer aircraft is all that is on offer now. The decision to discontinue Mare Nostrum has not at all discouraged migrants from their seaward journeys; and Triton has proven woefully unable to provide adequate protection.

European governments are mobilizing. Ministers have met, leaders are poised to meet. What they must commit to do is the following.

First and foremost they must ensure dramatically increased search and rescue capacity in the Mediterranean. Front-line states Italy and Malta require immediate financial and logistical help to send out more sea and air patrols. What is needed for the longer term is a multi-country humanitarian operation with a clear mandate and sufficient resources to save lives at sea in the Mediterranean.

Second, more must be done to increase the number of resettlement places, humanitarian admissions and visas, so that people in need of protection have a greater possibility of turning to safe and legal avenues for reaching Europe instead of only the deadly and desperate choices they face now.

And third, this crisis should spur more serious and effective efforts to address the conflicts and human rights violations that force refugees and migrants to flee their homes in the first place. European authorities estimate that almost half of the women, men and children taking these dangerous journeys across the Mediterranean come from Syria and Eritrea alone.

The international community has been deadlocked at the UN Security Council and failed, consistently, to take meaningful action to end four years of war and widespread crimes against humanity in Syria. States have similarly consistently ignored the relentless repression that has crushed the rights, dignity and hopes of Eritreans for over 20 years.

The most reliable way to end these tragedies on the high seas would be to end the human rights and humanitarian tragedies unleashed by such cruel leaders as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, as well as the rise of brutal Islamic State forces.

This is not a crisis that Canada should simply observe and lament.

Amnesty International and many other groups and activists, along with the federal opposition parties, have repeatedly highlighted that Canada's response to the resettlement needs of Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Turkey has been woefully inadequate. We have called for a minimum of 10,000 Syrians to be resettled to Canada through government-sponsorship in each of 2015 and 2016. There would be no better time to announce that Syrian resettlement to Canada will be quickly and substantially ramped up.

Canada can and should as well be central to international efforts to address the underlying crises in Syria, Eritrea and other countries, propelling the displacement that leads to the Mediterranean.

It is not Italy's sole burden to make the Mediterranean safe for migrants. It is not only the European Union's obligation to resolve the wars and repression that force refugees to flee. The responsibility is a shared one, internationally. Canada should step up and play a role.

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