Mediterranean tragedies highlight the need to safeguard the rights and requirements of migrants

Published: 13 May 2011 16:53 CET

Matthias Schmale, Under Secretary General for Development, International Federation of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent (IFRC).

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) expresses its deep concern at reports that hundreds of migrants may have perished attempting to cross the Mediterranean since the start of the year.

While such migration is not a new phenomenon, and provides a lucrative income for people smugglers, the escalation of violence and the plight of the civilian population in several Middle Eastern and North African countries has resulted in a severe deterioration of the humanitarian situation.

In one particularly harrowing case, it is alleged that 61 migrants from Ethiopia, Nigeria, Eritrea, Ghana and Sudan died after 16 days at sea without fuel, food or water. A further 600 are reported to have perished in a shipwreck this week. The Council of Europe has called for a full enquiry into the former case.

International maritime law obliges all vessels to answer distress calls and to offer help where possible. The second Geneva Convention also states that “the wounded, sick and shipwrecked shall be collected and cared for.” 

The Red Cross/Red Crescent principal of impartiality “endeavours to relieve the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their needs, and to give priority to the most urgent cases of distress.” The IFRC underlines the need to support vulnerable migrants, regardless of their legal status, and to offer them lifesaving humanitarian assistance.

The IFRC Policy on Migration, adopted at the IFRC General Assembly in Nairobi less than two years ago compels us to do more and calls for solidarity: “National Societies in countries along the migratory trails will work together to optimise their humanitarian action, including the restoration of family links. This requires a focus on situations and conditions in which migrants all along their journey are especially susceptible to risks.”

The migration trails from Nigeria or Ethiopia to the southern Mediterranean coast is highly perilous – across desert, through conflict zones and takes many days and at times weeks to complete.

The equally difficult onward journey across the Mediterranean is seasonal, picking up in the summer when the weather is kinder and temporary jobs are available in Europe. The IFRC foresaw that 2011 would see increased movement as people fled instability in North Africa and the Gulf.

A special meeting was therefore convened in Rome in March and issued the following unequivocal statement: “All those fleeing for survival must be allowed to reach areas of safety [...] States should ensure that migrants’ basic needs are met, that they are treated with dignity, are not the subject of discriminatory treatment, and have access to basic services such as health, food and education.” 

The IFRC welcomes certain States’ commitment to provide humanitarian assistance, protection and other services to those fleeing violence from North Africa. We urge all States to respect the human rights of these migrants under international law, to ensure they are treated with dignity, and to allow all those fleeing to reach a safe haven.


The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is the world's largest humanitarian organization, with 191 member National Societies. As part of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, our work is guided by seven fundamental principles; humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity and universality. About this site & copyright