More than 100 people are dead and hundreds still missing – What will the tragedy in Lampedusa change?

By Elisabeth Schmidt-Hieber,
PICUM Communications Officer.

‘The sea is full of dead bodies.’ ‘Corpses are crammed into the wreck and some of the bodies – even in death – seeming to cling to the sides of the hull.’ Such were the responses of shock to the news of more than 100 people dying in a boat tragedy near Lampedusa on 3 October. Policymakers, civil society organisations and many individuals alike expressed their solidarity with the victims, through official statements and on social media.

According to reports, about 500 migrants, mostly from Eritrea and Somalia, were on the boat coming from Libya. When its motor stopped working, some of the passengers allegedly lit flares to call for help from passing ships. However, the fire spread on the boat, pushing all passengers to one side of the boat, causing it to capsise. Most of the migrants on board were unable to swim and hundreds still remain missing.

But what will follow this wave of shock? When the mourning of these latest victims abates? After the Twitter conversation with the hash tag #Lampedusa dies down?

As this boat was sinking, world leaders were meeting for the second time in history to discuss the importance and positive impacts of migration at the United Nations High Level Dialogue (HLD) on Migration and Development in New York.

However, opportunities for safe migration to the EU have become more and more restricted. What is left, are perilous, life-endangering routes, often managed by corrupt networks. Stories of migrants enduring hours or even days in containers on trucks with little air to breathe, climbing razor wired fences and embarking on unsafe, overcrowded boats show us that despair and poverty do not know borders.

According to the NGO United for Intercultural Action, more than 16,000 persons have been documented to have died in attempting to migrate to the European Union between 1998 and 2012.

EU Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmström, currently also at the HLD, has recently emphasized that push-backs of refugees and migrants are illegal under international law.  Moreover, she urged EU leaders to show solidarity with member states at the EU borders which have most arrivals.

We at the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) have been monitoring deaths at Europe’s borders for over a decade. While the EU has changed in many ways, its failure to get to grips with irregular migration remains.

Continuous human rights abuses in countries of transit such as Morocco, with EU involvement in funding for measures to prevent irregular migrants from entering the EU, frequently occur outside of the media glare. These human tragedies are no less abhorrent.

UN Special Rapporteur for the Human Rights of Migrants, François Crépeau, underlined at a EU Parliament hearing in May 2013, on the occasion of the launch of his study into human rights consequences of the  European Union’s external border management, that:

Within EU institutional and policy structures, migration and border control have been increasingly integrated into security frameworks that emphasise policing, defence and criminality over a rights-based approach“.

Should this be the response of the region which united under principles of justice, human rights and rule of law?

EU member states should put the rights of every human being first, irrespective of migration status.

The tragedy in Lampedusa should be proof enough for the need to shift to a more comprehensive, informed and empowering migration policy, one which ensures protection and justice for all migrants.

PICUM calls upon EU member states to enhance regular migration channels for work and family reunification, ensure safe access to those seeking protection, and uphold the rights of all migrants irrespective of status.

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