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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

The world's apathy is as shocking as 18,000 deaths by drowning

Bereft of hope, thousands continue to risk perilous journeys across the Mediterranean

Italian prosecutors ordered the seizure of the Aquarius migrant rescue ship. Claude Paris / AP
Italian prosecutors ordered the seizure of the Aquarius migrant rescue ship. Claude Paris / AP

There was a disconnect between the rhetoric of the European Commission on Universal Children’s Day last week and the reality unfolding in the waters off Europe’s southern borders. The commission declared its “commitment to the protection of children worldwide” was “a moral duty”. It pledged to ensure that “no child is left behind”. Yet the bodies washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean – amounting to one-fifth of all those who set sail on a perilous journey for survival – tell a starkly different story. Europe’s determination to keep migrants from its shores at any cost means its solution has been to make it someone else’s problem. The results can be seen in the scandalous conditions of the EU-sponsored refugee camps in Libya and elsewhere. At the same time, European nations pandering to populist sentiment have been sabotaging maritime rescue operations mounted by NGOs. The rescue ship Sea-Watch 3 has only just set sail again after four months spent impounded in Malta without legal justification. A search-and-rescue aircraft operated by the Swiss Humanitarian Pilots Initiative and a Dutch ship, the MV Lifeline, have been similarly detained. Meanwhile the Aquarius, operated by Medecins Sans Frontieres, has been held in Marseille since September amid accusations from Italy of dumping toxic waste – a charge that is vigorously denied and compounded by the absurd suggestion that HIV could be transmitted via migrants’ clothing.

Small wonder that NGOs accuse European governments of trying to prevent rescue operations by criminalising their activities. Italy’s deputy prime minister has even accused aid agencies of providing a “taxi service” for migrants, a grotesque characterisation suggesting those who risk death at sea do so by choice. The Syrian refugees in Lebanon might disagree. Increasingly unwelcome in Lebanon and afraid to return home for fear of reprisals or persecution by the Assad regime, many are once again packing what little they have in the desperate search for a life free from hostility and danger.

Figures released by the UN Refugee Agency show that more than 2,000 people have drowned so far this year attempting to cross the Mediterranean, which begs the question: how many might have survived had those rescue ships been at sea? One of the most heartrending aspects of this continuing tragedy is that where the death of a five-year-old boy – in this case, Syrian Khaled Nejmeh, drowned off the coast of Lebanon as his family tried to reach Cyprus – might once have provoked outrage and disgust at the global apathy that led to his plight, now it barely registers as shocking. Contrast that with the outpouring of horror provoked by the death of little Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach three years ago. The world has become desensitised to the scale of a tragedy that has claimed nearly 18,000 lives since 2014.

The heroic exceptions are the volunteers from across Europe who, in the words of Berlin-based charity Sea-Watch, “could not stand on the sidelines witnessing people dying in the Mediterranean sea any longer”. Their humanity shames all those standing in their way for political gain.