The scale of this latest tragedy is unprecedented: at least 94 people have died and hundreds are missing after an overcrowded boat carrying some 500 people caught fire and sank off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy, early Thursday morning. Some 150 people have been rescued and the search continues for more survivors even as hope fades.
But deaths of migrants and asylum seekers trying to reach European shores are a recurring tragedy, and a continuing European shame. An estimated 1,500 died attempting the crossing in 2011, a year that saw a significant increase in crossings due to the conflict and upheaval in North Africa. Numbers were thankfully lower in 2012, with an estimated 500 deaths – still a shocking number. Yesterday I contacted UNHCR in Rome to get their most recent estimate for deaths at sea this year: they calculated about 100 (there is never any certainty). Tragically, that number has doubled in the space of a few hours.
The Italian government has called for a day of mourning tomorrow. This is appropriate, but of course not enough. The deaths of so many should shock the conscience of all in Europe, including Europe’s decision-makers. For too long, EU border control, including sea border surveillance, has been focused on barring entry, rather than saving lives. That has to change.
Preventing deaths at sea needs to be at the heart of a coordinated European-wide approach to boat migration. This entails improving search and rescue coordination among EU member states, resolving disputes over responsibility for rescue and disembarkation, removing disincentives for commercial vessels to conduct rescues, and replacing the persistent emphasis on border enforcement with the imperative of saving lives.