We must stop Europe’s seas becoming a graveyard
The date: October 2013. The place: off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. The death toll: 364 people.
The date: January 2014. The place: off the coast of the Greek island of Farmakonisi. The death toll: 11 people, including eight children.
The date: just last Monday (5 May 2014). The place: off the coast of the island of Samos, near the Turkish coast. The death toll: at least 22 people.
The date: today. The place: off the coast of Lampedusa. The death toll: currently unknown.
This tragic list goes on and on. According to the UNHCR, at least 2,600 people have died crossing the Mediterranean to Europe since 2011. In the Aegean sea alone, just between August 2012 and March 2014, 188 people drowned or went missing.
These are horrifying statistics. And every single number represents a person. A person with their own reasons for risking their life to reach Europe, a person with their own story of difficulties and abuses encountered along their journey. For those who do survive, their stories of ill-treatment often continue.
Last year, my colleague Naomi visited Greece and met refugees and migrants who had survived the perilous journey to Europe by sea. I warn you that their stories make powerful reading.
More recently, colleagues interviewed some of the survivors of the January 2014 Farmakonisi shipwreck. Two Afghan refugees described how they had been among 27 people – Afghans and Syrians – who had set sail from Turkey for Greece at night. They were forced to stop around midnight, when their motor failed.
They were only about 100 metres from the island shore and were found by Greek coastguards. The coastguards used rope to attach the boat to their own vessel, and began towing them at great speed back towards Turkey. As the boat zigzagged, it took on water. Some of the migrants who were in the water tried to climb aboard the coastguards boat but were beaten back. My colleagues heard that those refugees who did manage to get aboard were beaten and held at gunpoint.
These are not isolated incidents. Time and again, people are being pushed-back the way they came, and left adrift in the open sea. Many are denied the chance to explain their circumstances, or to try to claim asylum. Some even drown while countries argue about who is responsible for rescuing them.
People have different reasons for coming to Europe. Some are fleeing persecution and conflict in their own countries, and are seeking sanctuary, to be recognised as refugees. Others are migrants, leaving behind poverty to seek a better future for themselves and their families. Whatever their route or reason for coming, their lives and human rights should be protected. But increasingly restrictive policies, aimed at preventing people from entering Europe at all costs, have forced people to take more and more dangerous routes. The human cost of Europe’s asylum and migration policy and practice is too high. We must do better.
Right now, EU member states are developing guidelines which will shape the future of EU asylum and migration strategy for the next five years. These guidelines will be adopted at the European Council meeting on 26-27 June – which David Cameron will attend. Please call on your MP to write to the Prime Minister, urging him to ensure that protection of people is put at the forefront of this policy.
Without concrete action, tragically, the death toll off Europe’s shores will continue to rise. Will you allow this to happen in your name?
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.