Every day across the Mediterranean Sea hundreds of courageous refugees try to make it to safe havens in an attempt to flee repressive regimes and wars, but this summer saw the launch of ‘Operation Trident’, a policy of non-intervention whereby boats found with refugees are left unassisted even if they appear less than sea worthy. This policy change has resulted in hundreds of deaths of those who don’t make it to safety. One of the more tragic events was in September, when a boat that had left Egypt carrying 500 Somali, Eritrean and Palestinian men, women and children drowned after it was rammed off the coast of Lampedusa. Only 11 survivors were left to tell the tale of how they spent the next four days battling the elements in the open sea. In August a boat carrying 200 refugees sank off the coast of Libya. More than 3000 refugees have drowned in the Mediterranean this year alone.
The refugees taking the hazardous journey across the Mediterranean come mostly from Libya, Syria, Gaza and the Horn of Africa, their main destination being Italy. The backdrop to the change in policy is the escalation of xenophobic and racist diatribes from political parties across Europe – including Britain – as named in a recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Migrants’ Rights. These parties, with the help of the media, argue that migrants should stay put or be transferred to refugee camps. But these camps are over-populated and it was only this week that the UN announced that millions of Syrians in refugee camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey would no longer receive food vouchers as the donors to the program have ceased to fund it.
This week, too, Britain’s Channel 4 News ran a feature on these refugees trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Their treatment, via the change in policy, is reminiscent of the equally inhuman treatment of ‘boat people’ by the Australian authorities, which seize and imprison any asylum-seekers found heading by sea to Australia to Pacific island detention centres. This is in contravention of international law, as undoubtedly the ‘don’t search and rescue’ policy is in Europe. In any case, it is our duty to help people in danger, regardless of the moral vacuity of governments. Also, we should not forget that many European countries played a central role in creating or extending the very conflicts in North Africa and the Middle East that these refugees are fleeing from.