Greece migrant boat sinking Wikipedia 2

World Refugee Day: One more predictable and avoidable migrant tragedy

“Mass drownings at sea are to the EU what mass shootings are to the U.S. Every time it happens, politicians pretend to be concerned, yet keep in place the policies at the root of the problem. So, people keep dying.”

This year, World Refugee Day comes on the heels of one more horrific mass drowning event, as an overcrowded boat carrying 750 migrants, travelling from Libya to Italy, capsized off the coast of Greece. At last count, 81 migrants are dead and 500 are still missing (most likely their bodies will never be found), making it one of the worst refugee-related tragedies we’ve seen in the past few decades. 

Amidst the confusion of mixed reports and timelines, personal testimonials and official EU statements, it’s hard to say whether we’ll ever know what really transpired and who is to blame. But the details emerging are horrific. Did the ship’s captain refuse help? Did the Greek coast guard (recently the target of international criticism for engaging in illegal pushbacks) take too long to intervene? Were Pakistani refugees forced below deck on the crowed ship practically ensuring their deaths? It’s all too grim. 

What we do know is that, according to EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, the sinking of the migrant ship off the coast of Pylos may be the “worst tragedy ever” in the Mediterranean sea.” And that’s saying something because “nearly 30,000 refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean since 2014, mostly after having been packed onto unseaworthy boats and abandoned by human traffickers.” That number, migration experts say, is much, much higher, but impossible to ascertain. 

Lack of accountability over migrant deaths

world refugee day

Migrant deaths have become so commonplace that most of us barely notice them anymore. A few weeks ago, a ship sank near the island of Mykonos and nine refugees drowned. How many of us even read about it? There’s something so gruesome and macabre about dead bodies washing up on shore on an island known for being a privileged party destination for all the world’s rich and famous. During a recent Greek protest, I saw someone share graffiti that read, “Tourists, enjoy your swim in the Aegean cemetery.” Harsh, perhaps, but not inaccurate. 

The tragedy has, once again, shone a spotlight on the global refugee crisis, and the role that human smugglers play in so many deaths. But to only point the finger at smugglers who often knowingly and willingly put desperate people in harm’s way for a quick buck is to be willingly blind to governments enabling these tragedies to unfold almost daily. 

Jeremy Harding, author of The Uninvited: Refugees at the Rich Man’s Gate, calls out the hypocrisy, describing human traffickers as “only enacting an entrepreneurial version of the disdain that refugees suffer at the hands of far more powerful enemies — those who terrorize them and those who are determined to keep them at arm’s length.” 

He very accurately points out that human traffickers are simply “vectors of the contempt that exists at the two poles of the asylum seeker’s journey. They take their cue from the attitudes of warlords and dictators, on the one hand, and, on the other, of wealthy states whose citizens have learned to think of generosity as a vice.” 

Border policies to blame for most migrant deaths

Watching the Greek government declare three days of national mourning and local politicians go through the motions of travelling to Kalamata, where most of the 104 people rescued are now being treated, left a bitter taste in my mouth.  

Is the Greek government genuine in its display of sadness at so many migrant deaths? Is the EU sincere in issuing statements of condolences and grief? I have no doubt that they don’t wish death on these migrants. But they’re not doing anything to prevent them either. 

Governments keep repeating the same old tired and insincere mantra, blaming human smugglers for these deaths, completely absolving themselves of their responsibility and the blood that they have on their hands. Their anti-migration border policies aiming to eliminate legal pathways to asylum are directly responsible for desperate people forced to take irregular and far more dangerous routes. The increased militarization of borders doesn’t stop forced human migration; it only makes it more deadly for those attempting the journey. 

While EU member states assert that the Frontex border agency and the EU pact is not intended to exclude migrants but rather to address irregular migration, it fails to provide accessible, equitable, regular pathways for all migrants. Migrants who are coming from Africa and Southeast Asia, migrants who are coming from formerly colonized countries, frequently encounter major obstacles in obtaining permits and legal pathways, thereby forcing them to seek alternative routes that are far less safe. 

Thoughts and prayers 

“Mass drownings at sea are to the EU what mass shootings are to the U.S.,” tweeted Andrew Stroehlein, the editorial director of Human Rights Watch. “It keeps happening. And every time it happens, politicians pretend to be concerned, yet keep in place the government policies at the root of the problem. So, people keep dying.”

Europe, like the U.S. — and, sadly, now Canada with the closing of Roxham Road — are no longer prioritizing saving migrants’ lives. They are prioritizing deterrence policies. Despite the majority of asylum seekers being able to prove that they are fleeing war, violence and persecution, despite 41% of the nearly 35.3 million refugees in the world being under the age of 18, we continue to treat them with suspicion, insisting that the privilege of mobility is only for some. 

Human displacement as a global challenge to be addressed isn’t going away anytime soon. As the climate crisis amplifies, migration experts warn that forced human movement is only going to become more urgent and more massive. Asylum seekers will keep knocking on our doors and desperation and fear will demand that they continue to do everything in their power to bypass man-made walls, borders and inhumane policies that seek to keep them out.

Many will die in the process, and our governments will continue to pretend there’s nothing they could have possibly done to prevent the very deaths their own policies helped produce. ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis.