Can migrant lives be saved? The answer is yes

“We will never grow tired of voicing out our disdain with regards to such tragedies and asking Italian and European institutions for a concrete commitment to avoid them - we cannot just talk about migrant people in relation to disasters.  Again, we will never grow tired of asking for safe access for those who flee conflict, who are in need and seek protection: it is unacceptable that such tragedies still happen. I want to express all our solidarity with the victims of the shipwreck and their families” Mr Francesco Rocca, President of the Italian Red Cross, October 3, 2013 on the loss of lives of people seeking refuge across the Mediterranean.

Could anything have been done to prevent the deaths of at least 100 people making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean to Lampedusa on 3 October? Or the six young men whose bodies washed up in front of horrified cruise ship passengers near Italy’s Catana beach resort in August? The hundreds who have died in recent years attempting to reach the Australian coast via Indonesia? The many Haitians who have lost their lives in rusty, over-crowded boats in the Caribbean Sea - including those in 2007 who, according to survivors, were eaten alive by sharks as they waited to be rescued?  The 89 who died in the Strait of Gibraltar over 10 days in October-November 2012? And so on it goes. You get the point. The answer, of course, must be yes.

As long as people move, whether forced to flee danger or to improve their lives or for other reasons, there will be dangers on land and sea.  The dangers will always be greater when people are compelled to move outside of legal channels. Creating more opportunities for legal migration and creating an external procedure for seeking international protection within the EU and in other parts of the world could save lives and is a matter of urgency. 

There are many measures that can be taken by Governments to reduce the numbers of people dying in this most distressing way and this was the call made by the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement at its last International Conference with Governments in 2011.  The Conference called upon States, within the framework of applicable international law, to ensure that their national procedures at international borders -  especially those that might result in denial of access to international protection, deportation or interdiction of persons – include adequate safeguards to protect the dignity and ensure the safety of all migrants. We also called upon Governments, in line with such relevant international law and national legislation, to grant to migrants appropriate international protection and to ensure their access to relevant services, such as health care, shelter or simply making contact with their families.

There is an urgent need for a major scale-up of international support to continue providing life-saving services to migrants in host countries, while strengthening and sustaining local capacities to deal with the burden of this crisis. The issue of responsibility-sharing needs to be developed further with a view to developing a European Union protocol for the Mediterranean region as one example. 

Finally we need to do more to respect the families’ right to know the fate of those who lose their lives at sea by improving identity data collection and sharing. Acting on its Fundamental Principle of Humanity, the Red Cross and Red Crescents’ work to protect life and human dignity is even more paramount in these tragic circumstances.

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