Migrant deaths reach new highs in 2021

EU shuts its borders & eyes to migrants’ plight


January 3, 2022

/ By / New Delhi

Migrant deaths reach new highs in 2021

African refugees rescued in the Mediterranean Sea (Photo: SOS Méditerranée/Anthony Jean)

Year 2021 saw a sharp spike in the number of deaths of migrants trying to cross over into Europe, with a record number of deaths occurring in December itself. Yet, the European Union leaders have maintained a stoic, deathly silence over the issue, pretending that it was not happening or even more inhumanely that it was not their problem. The EU needs to overhaul its migrant policy, not just for the sake of the migrants, but also for its own interests, at least in the medium term.

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About a fortnight ago, the International Organisation for Migration, the United Nations body in charge of migrants and their interests, said that over 160 migrants had died off the coast of Libya as they were trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea and reach Italian coasts. Last week, at least three persons had died, and dozens were missing when a migrant boat carrying close to 50 persons sank off the Greek Cyclades islands. A few years ago, reports like these tended to make headlines across the world and especially the European Union, which was the intended destination of the tragic victims.

However, of late, numerous incidents involving migrants pass unnoticed as the European Union seems to have insulated itself to the humanitarian disasters that play out at its doorsteps or even within its territories literally every day. The EU seems to have begun to play ostrich with migrants, pretending that they don’t exist anymore or decidedly that migrants and their tragedies don’t matter to the EU bureaucrats and the governments anymore.

Yet pretentions apart, a slaughter of migrants seems now a daily occurrence in many parts of the world, but nowhere as starkly as the EU. After a slight dip in 2020, mainly due to the border closures resulting from the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the migrants’ movements and accompanying disasters have picked up in 2021 again.

A report released by the United Nations earlier this month said that at least 4834 migrants have died in 2021 while attempting to cross borders. It says number of deaths this year is already more than 600 more than in 2020 and that since 2014, over 45,843 migrants have perished while trying to cross borders.

Of these, a fair share of deaths occurred in and around the European Union as the region continues to be one of the most attractive parts of the world for the migrants to move into. This attraction is driven partly by Europe’s geographical location as it is close to some of the most impoverished and conflict-riven countries in the Africa as well as Asia, especially the Middle East that has been in a constant state of war since the past decade or so.

Almost 28,000 deaths, or over 60 pc of the total deaths since 2014 occurred due to drowning and a large share of these drownings happened in the Mediterranean Sea, one of the most preferred routes used by migrants as well as human traffickers to smuggle people into Europe. The IOM says over 23000 migrants perished in the Mediterranean Sea, the source of frequent reports of refugee boats sinking, killing dozens at a time. Migrants have also died of suffocation in trucks, others have died frozen at Europe’s doorsteps and still others have been run over, shot or killed by unidentified causes.

Even as Europe witnessed a far higher number of deaths of migrants, the region has stopped, since last year, to keep information on the number of deaths of migrants or rather any data related to this issue, laments the UN body.

Indeed, over the past many years, despite daily incidents occurring at its borders and despite thousands of migrants knocking on its doors, the European Union has preferred not only to look away, but in many ways, it has become complicit in the deaths. One is that the EU has sharply cut back or even totally ended its search and rescue operations in the seas around its borders. Moreover, they have withdrawn their naval boats from the zones in the Mediterranean or the Atlantic Ocean.

The EU has also undertaken the controversial approach of arming and funding navies of war-torn countries like Libya to be its watchdogs and arrest the migrants caught in mid-sea and take them back to Africa. For instance, the Libyan Coast guard has intercepted close to 24,000 migrants in the Mediterranean and taken them back to Libya. Human rights bodies have called out against this practice as they say that not only does it severely endanger the lives of the migrants, but also exposes them to torture at the hands of the Libyan forces, citing numerous instances.

The UN as well as the human rights bodies say that the migrants have begun to rush across the Mediterranean as the officials in Libya have accelerated their crackdown on migrants that have amassed in capital Tripoli. The UN officials estimate that about 31,500 migrants were intercepted and returned to Libya in 2021, compared with nearly 11,900 migrants the previous year, according to the IOM. About 980 migrants were dead or presumed dead in 2020, the UN agency said.

The main reason behind EU’s inhumane stance on migrants’ deaths seems to be the unprecedented rise of the far-right parties in most EU countries. Indeed, the political discourse in many nations is now driven by the far-right leaders. For instance, barely six months ahead of the Presidential elections in May 2022, the far-right parties are dictating the mood of the nation, while the left parties seem nowhere on the scene. The picture is hardly any different in the Netherlands, Austria, Italy or Switzerland.

The mass influx of migrants in 2015-16 has been blamed for the rise of the far right in Europe, notably since the German AfD party came into prominence only when the then Chancellor Angela Merkel went against the tide and took the politically courageous but humane approach of opening German borders to migrants fleeing war in Iraq and Syria. Since then, most politicians have preferred to look the other way even as thousands of migrants continued to die on their watch or on their borders.

But this inhumane attitude has cost nearly 50,000 lives in under seven years and it is time for the EU to put an end to this mindless killing. It is of course a herculean task for any country to curb migration, especially in a world that has never been as unequal as today. But the least the European leaders can do is to ensure that they boost their rescue operation capabilities and mount shelters for the migrants already on their territory. The migrants may not be European citizens, but it still does not reduce the value of their lives. It is time that this basic principle is respected in letter and spirit and not just in lip service as has become the norm of late.



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