Last week, Loujin, a four-year-old girl from Syria, spent days stranded on a boat before eventually dying at sea, according to Human Rights Watch. Alarmingly, Loujin is just one of over 1,200 people who have died in the Mediterranean Sea so far this year, attempting to make it to Europe.
These deaths are the outcome of Europe’s conscious strategy to prioritize border control over sea rescue. The strategy, as Human Rights Watch has described it, is “deterrence by drowning and dehydration” – two of the several causes of death likely for people left adrift in unseaworthy vessels.
Despite knowing how dangerous the journey will be, people put their lives on the line every day, boarding unfit boats and setting out to sea. They take the risk, because for the most part, there are no safer options. The E.U. is failing these people, and putting them at risk of exploitation and even death.
How has the E.U. abdicated its duty to search and rescue?
Currently, there is not a single E.U. search and rescue ship actively patrolling the areas where boats are most likely to encounter difficulties. Alarm Phone, a hotline for people on boats in distress, has reported numerous instances of Maltese authorities turning a blind eye to calls for help in their search and rescue area.
Frontex, the E.U.’s border and coast guard agency, conducts aerial surveillance, but with the aim of supporting pull-backs to countries where people on the move are at a high risk of modern slavery, such as Libya; not with the aim of supporting rescue missions.
Driving exploitation; not fighting it
In recent years, European governments have pursued tough immigration policies designed to deter people from coming to their countries to live. Some of these policies, such as the decision to stop patrolling the sea for the purpose of search and rescue, have been deadly.
Government officials have justified these policies as necessary for fighting trafficking and disrupting the business model of human traffickers. But the opposite is true. These policies are driving exploitation. When people feel the need to leave their country, but have no safe way to do so, they are at much higher risk of exploitation.
Furthermore, in the case of Libya, supporting the Libyan authorities to actively intercept and return people to Libya rather than enabling them to be rescued and taken to a safe country means actively putting them at risk of trafficking. People who are returned to Libya are often taken to detention centers where they are likely to face serious abuse, including extortion, torture, forced labor.
No more deaths
The shockingly cruel policy of letting people drown at sea, whether they have experienced modern slavery or not, must end. Human Rights Watch states:
Deterrence by drowning and dehydration is abominable. In the absence of meaningful safe and legal channels, and the persistence of conflicts, rights violations, and hardships that push people to flee, EU states and institutions should act now to protect life at sea and ensure predictable disembarkation in places of safety.
The Freedom United community is calling on governments around the world to introduce immigration policies and legislation which protect people from exploitation rather than putting them at greater risk. Join them today.