ISTANBUL -- The United Nations’ refugee agency slammed the international community today for “losing its focus on saving lives” as hundreds of thousands of people risk death at sea in search of a better life.
At least 348,000 people have made dangerous and illegal sea voyages this year in an attempt to migrate or seek asylum, the agency said, and 4,272 have been reported dead.
The U.N. agency warned that governments are too focused on keeping foreigners outside of their borders and not on aiding them.
"This is a mistake, and precisely the wrong reaction for an era in which record numbers of people are fleeing wars,” High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said in a statement. "Security and immigration management are concerns for any country, but policies must be designed in a way that human lives do not end up becoming collateral damage.”
Most migrants are bound for Europe, with over 207,000 people having crossed the Mediterranean since the start of the year. Despite record numbers, search-and-rescue missions and funding to support lifesaving endeavors have been slashed.
Italy -- one of the major ports of entry for migrants -- announced in late October it was ending Mare Nostrum, its large-scale search-and-rescue operation that cost $11 million a month. Humanitarian groups decried the decision, citing the thousands of lives it has saved. A greatly scaled-back EU-led operation is set to take the reins in January, focusing on border patrol and not search and rescue.
Just last week, 17 African migrants died from hypothermia when they tried to travel from Libya to Italy in a small dinghy. Theirs were the first reported deaths since Italy announced it would halt Mare Nostrum.
In October, Britain voiced its opposition to any search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, claiming they only encourage migrants to make dangerous sea trips.
But rights groups warn that migrants won’t stop coming.
“People are still taking these dangerous sea routes to get to Europe,” John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International’s director for Europe and Central Asia, said last week after news broke that yet another group of migrants had died making the sea voyage from Europe. “If the EU is serious about preventing the Mediterranean from becoming a cemetery, it must be prepared to deploy search and rescue operations all along the routes that desperate refugees and migrants are taking.”
Asylum-seekers from war-torn Syria make up one of the biggest migrant groups to be smuggled by sea this year to Europe, closely followed by Eritreans, according to statistics provided to The WorldPost by the International Organization for Migration.
“I don’t care about the dangers of this trip,” a 29-year-old Syrian man who goes by Arwa told The WorldPost this September in Istanbul. Hours later, he packed his bags to head to the coast, where he planned to board a small, crowded vessel illegally bound for Greece. “I feel like it’s my last chance in life,” he said.