Italy: The boats are unsafe – but frightened refugees still get on

By Justin Forsyth, former Save the Children CEO

The sinking of a migrant boat off Lampedusa earlier this month may have shocked the world, but it won’t have surprised the refugees who have already made the dangerous sea-voyage between north Africa and Europe. Those who survive the journey tell stories of fearing the worst when they see the state of the boats; some speak of bailing out water before they’ve even got moving.

But despite their misgivings, hope almost always outweighs fear, that and the sense of having nothing to lose. And so they board the boats, against their better judgement, and often their worst fears are realised.

Those who drowned were not the first migrants who have lost their lives trying to reach Europe and they won’t be the last. Many of them will be children. But the sheer scale of the disaster means that, unlike many of the numerous smaller tragedies that befall people trying to cross Europe’s borders, this one will not be ignored.

A growing problem

The truth is that what happened off Lampedusa is indicative of a steadily growing problem. The number of refugees  who have reached Italy’s south coast in this way has increased almost every year over the past decade, jumping from 8,000 in 2003 to a peak of more than 50,000 in 2011.

So far this year more than 30,000 people have arrived, including almost 6,000 children, two thirds of whom arrive without an adult. They leave behind stories of war and destruction, poverty and homelessness. Many are fleeing conflict- 1,300 of the children who arrived this year were Syrians.

If they make it, they wait in reception centres where Save the Children offers assistance to minors while their asylum claims are dealt with. Those whose cases are looked upon favourably are granted to leave to remain – others are deported back to their country of origin.

But before they even get a hearing, they must run the gauntlet of the high seas, risking their lives in unseaworthy vessels run by ruthless gangs of profit-hungry people smugglers. Refugees tell stories of the weak being thrown into the sea to reduce weight when overloaded vessels hit bad weather.

Damen’s story

These people are more than numbers. They are children like Damen, who fled his family home in Mali aged 12 after his parents died. Without any adult to care for him, Damen spent the next few years in and out of Libyan jail before he and his best friend scraped together the 200 euros needed to cross the Mediterranean.

The two young men dreamed of the opportunities a new life in Europe would bring, but only one of them ever made it. Their boat capsized in high winds with 300 people aboard and Damen was the only child survivor of that particular disaster. Damen was one of the lucky ones- he was granted asylum and is now in Italy, his nightmare behind him. For others the horror still lies ahead.

We should recognise that while there are no easy solutions to this crisis, stories like Damen’s are a stain upon Europe’s collective conscience.  It is simply unacceptable that the Mediterranean, where many of us holiday, has become one of the most dangerous migrant routes in the world. There may not be a silver bullet to solve the underlying problems that drive people to take such risks, but there are simple steps that could and should be considered.

Heart of the issue

We should do everything in our power to protect those who set out on these dangerous journeys. Our staff in Lampedusa know that a spell of calm summer weather will bring the boats. Extra coastguard patrols during still spells could create a safety-net at sea that concentrates on the regular migrant routes.

Ultimately though, the best way to stop these boats sinking to make sure they don’t sail in the first place. To do that, Europe must work with North African and Middle Eastern countries to set up mechanisms by which migrants, especially children like Damen, are identified and offered assistance before they take such appalling risks. We cannot allow a situation where children must play Russian roulette with their lives in order to reach the help they need.

Stories like Damen’s show what is at stake. These are not faceless migrants, but real people, with hopes and dreams, worries and fears. Many of those who embarked from Libya may have gulped when they saw the boat that would take them to their deaths. But they got on anyway, driven by the belief that things could get better. After this week’s disaster, we must make sure they do.

 A version of this blog first appeared in The Times (paywall)

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