Imagine being so frightened and desperate that you are prepared to be packed tightly with your babies and children, and hundreds of other distressed and despairing people, into a cold dark storage room in the bowels of an old dilapidated boat? And then the absolute terror and panic as the boat rolls over and sea water suddenly floods in as the boat quickly sinks beneath the Mediterranean.
That’s what happened last Wednesday to hundreds of men, women and children several miles off the coast of Egypt. The boat, which should only have held 200, was filled to overflowing with an estimated 600 refugees. Hundreds died. No one knows yet exactly how many. Only 169 were rescued and that was largely thanks to the quick response of local fishermen. Scores of bodies were recovered and the stench at the pier at El Borg was described as overpowering. Many more may never be found.
Those who died were victims of human traffickers – smugglers who ruthlessly exploit the desire of those fleeing war and poverty to find a new life in Europe. Over three hundred thousand more have made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean this year, some in the flimsiest of rubber dinghies or in boats totally unsuitable to such a crossing.
The ongoing war in Syria and the economic and humanitarian crises in that region, and in North Africa, have led to one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of modern time. So far this year over three and a half thousand people, including many women and children, have drowned in the Mediterranean. As the search for hundreds of bodies from the boat that sank off Egypt last week continues that number will rise.
The number who have drowned so far this year is now believed to be highest number of fatalities of any year.
Across the world the International Organisation for Migration estimates that the number of deaths among refugees will exceed 10,000.
At the same time that this tragedy unfolds in the Mediterranean region the war in Syria plumbs new depths of awfulness. Day after day the siege of Aleppo produces dreadful images of a city in ruins being systematically bombed out of existence. A quarter of a million people survive in Aleppo. There is little food and even less water. The doctors and first responders, with inadequate medical equipment and supplies, are exhausted trying to cope with the scale of deaths and injuries.
A truce that was negotiated by the USA and Russia, and was intended to facilitate the distribution of humanitarian aid, has collapsed in recrimination following an air strike on a UN convoy heading for Aleppo. The Syrian government and its Russian allies blame rebel groups and the west and they in turn blame Syrian Government forces and Russia. And all the time the number of civilians killed grows. One radiologist in Aleppo at the weekend was quoted in the media: “We have just one message to the world today; We are pleading for them to help us stop these warplanes. Leave us under siege, we will deal with thirst and hunger. But please, stop these bombs.”
But days later that cry for help has been ignored. The air attacks continue. The siege continues as Syrian government forces try to capture rebel held Aleppo. One western diplomat was also quoted saying: “The only way to take eastern Aleppo is by such monstrous atrocity that it would resonate for generations. It would be the stuff of history.”
While the international community fails to effectively engage in a constructive effort to end the war what has been the response from Europe? The focus has been on reducing the number of refugees trying to reach the EU. The EU leaders summit at Bratislava last week produced more money for border guards. But the ongoing tragedy in the Mediterranean is evidence that this crisis is not going away. According to the United Nations there are at least a quarter of a million migrants in Libya alone who are seeking ways across the Mediterranean.
The Hungarian Prime Minister thinks he has the answer. He wants the EU to set up armed camps somewhere in Africa and to gather up all of the refugees and transfer them there. This shameful proposition should be repudiated by all fair minded people.
Others have tried to chart a different course. Last week there was a meeting on refugees at the United Nations. A non-binding declaration was agreed. This governments pledge to uphold existing principles. Critics point to the fact that any proposals of substance were removed. However, there was some very limited progress in new commitments to aid.
Sadly, the Irish government has not led from the front on this issue. Speaking in New York last week, where the Irish government co-chaired the UN summit on refugees the Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald admitted that the Government has been “slow” in meeting its commitments to resettle Syrian migrants. Last year the government committed to accepting 4,000 refugees – a small number in light of the scale of the problem. Thus far it has failed to reach even this number. Less than a thousand have been resettled.
The plight of people in Direct Provision Centres – some for over a decade – is a scandal and an indictment of successive Irish governments.
Words cannot adequately describe the humanitarian disaster that is taking place in Syria or the EU’s treatment of refugees, including those in refugee camps. The international community has much to be ashamed of.