In 2018, 139,300 refugees and migrants safely arrived in Europe after fleeing their homes. An estimated 2,275 people, however, died or went missing while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea.

Refugees are escaping their countries due to the very real threat of persecution, war or violence. This could be due to their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership of a particular social group. Many of these refugees; who have already witnessed friends and family murdered by ISIS or recruited to war, have left before the same happened to them. 

Knowing that they are going to be facing this actual event, makes breaking free a risk worth taking. Having even the slightest hope that they will be able to live a fulfilling, safe and secure life is more than they had before. These destitute individuals aim for countries where they know relatives have managed to settle safely, that are tolerant and democratic and countries where they have an ability to speak the local language.

With the prospect of a life worth living, they make the arduous and precarious journey to their new home. Many, not reaching very far before disaster strikes. 

What does International Law say about refugees at sea?

There is a wealth of legislation in place to tackle the crisis of refugees who fall victim to the hazards at sea:

  • The 1974 International Convention for The Safety of Life at Sea
  • The 182 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea
  • The 1951 Refugee Convention 

These laws prohibit returning refugees and asylum seekers to territories where their life or freedom would be threatened. Including a country that may not be the originating state yet holds the same dangers. 

There is a duty placed upon everyone to rescue people who are found in the waters and to take them to a place of safety. A safe place is a destination where their life is no longer threatened. Making sure that basic human needs can be met and transport arrangements can be made to the person’s next destination. 

This legislation assumes that the thousands of people climbing onto overcrowded or inflatable boats are spotted.

What is the support of humanitarianism at sea?

Many European countries are attempting to limit the number of refugees taking this hazardous route by building fences at set off points. This is preventing the refugees from leaving their originating countries to embark on the shortest distances. This does not stop someone who is fleeing for their life. It simply encourages longer routes to be taken. With further travel by sea, the effect is that more deaths occur. 

To stop refugees from setting off, border forces are setting up sizable controls at sea and military guards. To avoid being spotted if they have any hope of succeeding, refugees have no choice but to leave at dangerous times.

Destination countries are also using a tactic called ‘Push-back’. This is when the Government forces those who have risked the dangerous journey, back over the border. Despite ‘push-back’ breaking international law, there are some countries using this approach. Countries like Australia, Spain and the United Kingdom.

Destination countries state that these measures are acceptable, as they are preventing deaths (despite the refugees facing death or persecution if they stay put). They express that the refugees are traveling in disproportionate numbers to several main countries. And we can state that distribution of re-settlement is not shared equally throughout Europe.

Governments are concerned that they are unable to financially afford the re-settlement without international help.

The UNHCR is attempting to tackle this pessimistic feeling, by encouraging Europe and the international community to accept that they need to deepen their solidarity with the forcibly displaced by sharing responsibility.

How much are the true humanitarians helping?

Voluntary organisations are working hard to save the refugees that have been lost, abandoned, pushed back, or face other dangers at sea.

Search and Rescue Services have been in existence since the tragic sinking of a boat from Libya to Lampedusa sank. 359 refugees died in this tragedy. This catastrophe highlighted the extent of the crisis to the world and the need to protect refugees. 

Search and Rescue Services are based on funding by humanitarian donors, which limits the amount of work that they can do. But, the funding is reducing day-by-day. Some countries view refugees as a burden and use border control as a political promise.

Do not fret though as true humanitarians do still exist in the form of Banksy; a well-known and controversial artist. Banksy has funded a rescue boat with his proceeds, to patrol the Mediterranean Sea. At present, the boat that he has named Louise Michel has been rescuing up to 350 people stranded at sea per week! Fingers crossed for more humanitarians like him.

Do you want to find out more about the humanitarian crisis we are facing and how can you help? Take a look at our article entitled "Europe: imagined crisis fades out and real one arises", by Villads Zahle.

Author: Janine S White

Educated in research, sociology and psychology, Janine has also worked therapeutically and practically supporting individuals from varying
backgrounds. Janine has a passion for using her writing to advocate on behalf of those affected by societal issues, raising awareness of misconceptions.


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