Europe's humanity is lost at sea when it comes to refugees

I had just one question when I read the Guardian’s story this morning about the boat full of refugees and migrants, lost in the Mediterranean, which was reportedly ignored by NATO vessels despite its distress pleas. No-one came to the ship’s aid and the Guardian reports that 61 people, out of a total of 72 on board, died. They included two babies.

What would have happened if that was a passenger ferry or a boat full of British tourists, cast adrift at sea? Even for a couple of hours?

I remember being stranded myself last year, rather pleasantly in Brazil, when the Icelandic volcano grounded all flights in and out of Europe. The Royal Navy was mobilised to rescue British tourists from Spain.

Yet the sense of urgency – not to mention respect for the law – suddenly evaporates when those on board are refugees and migrants. International maritime law requires all vessels, including military ones, to answer distress calls from nearby boats and to offer help to people where possible. Yet as we see all too frequently, refugees and migrants aren’t really seen as people. They are statistics, and problems.

The UNHCR reports that a boat carrying 600 people sank last week off the coast of Libya. Bodies were seen floating in the sea. Again, we heard very little about this (though admittedly there was a fairly significant story hogging the headlines last week).

NATO has refuted the Guardian’s claims that its ships ignored the stranded passengers’ distress calls. The fact remains that no-one answered the distress call and 61 people are now dead. An investigation must surely follow to establish the facts.

The EU also has a lot to answer for when it comes to its response to the refugee crisis in North Africa and the Southern Mediterranean. As Amnesty said last week to the Hungarian EU Presidency, Europe’s response to the UNHCR’s appeal to resettle refugees from North Africa has been shameful.  

To put it into context, Italy has failed to cope with an influx of 28,000 refugees and migrants. It was slow to set up basic refugee reception and processing facilities, or even meet people’s basic humanitarian needs. Other EU countries have been slow to help, or not helpful at all.

Only 5,000 refugees were resettled in the entire EU last year, meaning that the EU makes only the most marginal contribution to sharing responsibility for the global refugee population. Instead, having failed to suggest any tangible measures to support North African countries, the EU remains obsessed with preventing migration from these countries.

By contrast, Egypt and Tunisia – countries that have just faced total upheaval and changes of government – host the vast bulk of those who have fled Libya in recent weeks, 710,000 people in total.

This failure of humanity – a ‘fortress Europe’ desire to protect our high standard of living in the EU from southern invasion – is nothing new. What’s staggering is the level of hypocrisy, as EU leaders rush to outdo each other in their military muscle-flexing in Libya, while refugees and migrants are left stranded in neighbouring North African states which are themselves struggling or, even worse, are left to die at sea.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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