'We've Got To Give Migrants The Same Attention We Give All Sorts Of Other Issues'

02/14/2015 12:08 pm ET | Updated Feb 17, 2015
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Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we speak with Leonard Doyle of the International Organization for Migration about the tragic deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean.

Four small boats set out from the Libyan coast this weekend carrying hundreds of migrants and refugees desperate to cross the Mediterranean and reach Europe. On Wednesday, the UN's refugee agency said that up to 300 people aboard the ships were missing and feared drowned in the freezing waters.

UNHCR's announcement on Wednesday came just two days after Italy reported that 29 migrants had died of hypothermia aboard coast guard ships. The 29 had been found by Italian authorities alongside more than 70 others at sea without food or water. Reuters reports that the migrants spent 18 hours in freezing temperatures on the decks of the boats taking them to the Italian island of Lampedusa. It was unclear whether they were aboard one of the four ships that left Libya over the weekend.

According to the International Organization for Migration, Italian authorities detected more than 112,000 migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean into Europe in the first eight months of 2014, almost three times as many as in all of 2013. The organization estimates that 3,072 migrants have died while trying to reach Europe by sea in 2014, a dramatic rise since 2013, when 700 were estimated to have perished. The organization warns that the true number may be significantly higher.

The WorldPost spoke with Leonard Doyle, spokesperson for IOM's director general, about the crisis in the Mediterranean.

This winter, Italy suspended its search-and-rescue mission in the Mediterranean, citing unsustainable costs. Operation Triton, the EU mission set up to replace it, operates on a far smaller scale. How do the missions compare and how has the transition been?

The flotilla that was saving lives last year isn’t there this year. In this week's case, the Italian coast guard had to go far from shore in really inappropriate boats to make these rescues. The small number of people who were rescued later this week were picked up by commercial shipping.

IOM’s Missing Migrants Project has kept track of the number of migrants believed to be killed while crossing the Mediterranean and concluded that the number of deadly incidents has risen dramatically in recent years. What is behind the rising numbers?

It's obvious that people are coming as refugees or asylum seekers from the war in Syria. At the same time, the last groups we saw in Libya came from West Africa and they're not from countries that are at war. They were from Niger, Ghana, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia, Guinea, Niger, Mali and Mauritania. They are people who are trying to improve their lives. Of course, the people who do leave tend to be the more entrepreneurial. It’s not an easy thing to head off into the unknown.

Is the rising number of deaths tied to the rising number of migrants that attempt to make the crossing, or is the journey becoming more dangerous?

There are a lot more people traveling around the Global South. For example, a lot of Africans are working in Libya, but Libya fell apart. So a lot of these people ended up stuck there, and the question then becomes, “How do they get out of there?” IOM helped a huge number of these people to leave, but many are still there, and they are being treated abominably. They’re being mistreated by militias, extorted for money, and many of those who ended up trying to leave were robbed at gunpoint.

Are migrants who are planning to cross aware of the dangers?

One of the people we quoted in our briefing about this week's incidents said, “We know how dangerous it is. We need to do it.” They seem to be well aware of it but they don’t quite know how brutal the smugglers are.

"They’re being mistreated by militias, extorted for money, and many of those who ended up trying to leave were robbed at gunpoint."

There are a growing number of reports about the brutality of the smugglers. Has the business expanded in recent years?

The pressure for people to get out of trouble is growing, and in consequence, the smugglers are moving in and making a killing for themselves.

Following this week's deaths, the countries of the European Union have been criticized by international organizations for not doing enough to come to the migrants' aid. What is Europe doing, and what is it failing to do?

It’s perfectly understandable that governments want to watch who’s coming in. At the end of the day, every government, every country has its political realities and doesn't want people coming in who've not been vetted. There are police and security reasons, which everybody's highly sensitive to in this day and age.

Of course the other concern is that people are actually drowning and dying. IOM has been the first organization to draw attention to the global numbers of migrants dying. We estimate that about 3,200 people lost their lives while migrating in 2013. Last year, the number topped 5,000. It’s shouldn't be as much about the blame game here, but about the fact that the world needs to pay attention to this issue. We've got to actually give migrants the same attention as we give all sorts of other issues.

"We've got to give migrants the same attention we give all sorts of other issues."

Is there one main aspect of the crisis that readers need to understand?

People need to focus on the humanity of these migrants. At the end of the day they’re no different than the people who left Ireland to build America, or the Chinese who built the railroads in America. These are hardworking migrants. The idea that they are being left in the hands of smugglers to be extorted, robbed and murdered in some cases is a scandal. The money that’s being made from this trade is on a par with the money that’s being made by slave traders. The fact that they don’t have a strong country to defend them shouldn’t mean they are defenseless.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Earlier on HuffPost:

Italy Saves 970 Migrants
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