Rescuing Migrants at Sea Might Not Be a Permanent Solution, but It Will Save Lives

04/17/2015 04:06 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2015
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Doctors Without Borders' recent announcement that they will begin search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean has created some media controversy, since sea rescue is not a part of the organization's usual activities. The decision was made because the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean is getting worse every year, and the European Union does not show any sign of changing the policies that created it. Saving lives is our mission, whether on land or at sea.

Over the last 15 years, the Mediterranean has turned into a cemetery for at least 20,000 migrants and refugees in search of protection and a better life in Europe. At least 3,500 people drowned off of the European coast in 2014, many of them coming from Syria, Eritrea, or Sub-Saharan Africa. This year alone, 500 lives have been lost at sea -- even before the summer, the time when most people attempt this dangerous crossing.

Migration by sea is a complex phenomenon, influenced by both geopolitical and socioeconomic factors (including conflicts, extreme poverty and the violation of human rights of entire populations), but also by the lack of a system of protection, linked to the fact that many people remain stranded for an indefinite amount of time in refugee camps that fall short of every standard.

The number of migrants to Europe by sea reached 218,000 in 2014, an increase of 60,000 from the previous year. The ongoing war in Syria and rise of instability in Libya suggest that the number of people who choose the sea route this year will reach record heights. Given the lack of safe ways to enter Europe, the sea remains the only option for many refugees.

The mass exodus from Libya will be remembered as one of the worst in recent history. Europe, however, will be remembered for how little it has done to assist the current 3.8 million refugees from the Syrian conflict, 95 percent of whom are currently located in countries that border Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq, testing the limits of both local and international aid.

Instead of alleviating this burden, the EU is encouraging these countries to take in even more refugees and is building walls to keep these people out of Europe. Only 4 percent of Syrian refugees have succeeded in settling in Europe. As of now, the European Union has established a quota of 36,300 Syrian refugees they are able to accept. Germany is offering the most spots (30,000), while Great Britain is accepting only a shameful 143 Syrian refugees.

The public outrage incited by the Lampedusa shipwreck back in October 2013 died out long ago. While refugee organizations and asylum experts are discussing better ways of preventing deaths at sea by opening new, secure legal channels, the members of the European Union are looking at the situation from another angle. Consumed by fear of "pull factors," they are not interested in saving human lives, but in keeping these people far away from the public eye.

At the beginning of March, the European Commission announced the launch of the Joint Operational Team Mare. In contrast to the Italian operation Mare Nostrum, which attempted to aid people in danger in the Mediterranean, Joint Operational Team Mare a maritime intelligence center to combat human trafficking on the ocean -- another result of the closing of the EU's land borders. Today, Joint Operational Team Mare's energies and resources are devoted to cutting off the flow of migration, but cutting it off without offering people other escape routes has only resulted in more suffering and death.

In line with this approach, the Italian government has proposed increasing the rescue-at-sea capacities of countries like Tunisia and Egypt, so that people who are rescued can be taken back to north African shores rather than be brought to Europe. Our patients in Sicily tell our teams horrible stories of abuse suffered at the hands of their exploiters, but also of being exposed to maltreatment in transit countries such as Egypt and Libya. Syrian and Palestinian refugees who attempt the sea crossing from Egypt to Europe are arrested and detained in horrible conditions. Human rights associations have denounced cases of deportation by the Egyptian authorities, seeing as the detained are forced to purchase airplane tickets to other countries, even Syria.

Furthermore, in some cases the corruption of state authorities supports the growth of trafficking networks. The measures in place to stop migrant boats ignore the most basic underlying concept of the so-called "migration crisis": the people who need protection have no choice but to flee. At least 10 percent of Doctors Without Borders' patients in Sicily have been victims of violence in their countries of origin or during their long journeys.

If the dangerous sea route has now become the principal means of entry to the European Union for refugees, it is because the land borders are closed. At the end of 2013, Bulgaria began construction of a 9.6 million euro fence to keep out Syrian refugees. As the conflict in Syria escalated, the number of refugees entering Bulgaria dropped from 3,626 in October 2013 to only a few hundred in January 2014, after the start of this border project. Even the agency for border control Frontex admits that this operation has simply diverted the flow of refugees towards the sea.

Greece closed its land borders with Turkey back in 2012, diverting the major part of the flow of refugees towards maritime entry points. The conditions in refugee centers on the Greek islands are deplorable, and the Doctors Without Borders teams working in the Dodecanse Islands have denounced the lack of support from the Greek government in guaranteeing basic aid to the refugees on multiple occasions.

Next month, the European Commission will present a new agenda on the subject of migration. Whether the program takes into consideration the lessons learned over the course of the last few years remains to be seen. Concentrating on keeping people out and ignoring the human lives that make up these "flows" has only resulted in increasing death and suffering. We need to make this clear: we are talking about a humanitarian disaster caused by politics.

Concrete measures must immediately be adopted to guarantee the safe passage of refugees to European territories, to stop turning people away and guarantee minimum standards of acceptance. Appropriate search-and-rescue mechanisms must be implemented by the member countries of the EU to save the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who will risk their lives this year in search of safety and protection. The policy of keeping people out of Europe must be replaced by an approach that offers safe and legal channels for those who need a safe haven.

Since 2002, our teams in Lampedusa and in Sicily have been caring for survivors--treating them for dehydration, hypothermia and trauma resulting from the sea voyage. But they are not able to prevent deaths. This is unacceptable for a humanitarian organization like Doctors Without Borders. Even if sea rescues are not the solution to migration by sea, they are absolutely essential so people don't die while waiting for more humane policies. Until these are in place, the way that European leaders treat refugees continues to show their double standards, the way they are not practicing what they preach to the rest of the world about human rights.

This post was originally published on HuffPost Italy and was translated into English.