They were 900 men, women and children fleeing conflict and poverty in some of the world's most troubled countries and they did not deserve to drown off the island of Lampedusa.
We will never know who most of those who died were, but I’ve been reading the testimony of some of those who have made the crossing and it’s harrowing.
Moath fled political oppression in Eritrea and told the BBC how he, his wife and baby daughter risked everything. His was just one of many small families who daily face rape, beatings, murder, even dying of thirst in the Sahara desert to reach Libya before making the dangerous Mediterranean crossing.
ActionAid does not run relief programmes in Europe. Instead we concentrate our efforts on women and children living in poverty in countries such as Nigeria and Bangladesh or escaping conflict in Syria. Through those efforts, we work to change lives for good.
But as ActionAid’s Head of Humanitarian Response I regularly meet people just like Moath living in refugee camps across the Middle East and sub Saharan Africa.
Risking lives to make the sea crossing
With limited prospects in countries being torn apart by fighting, civil war and the consequences of poverty – and with legal opportunities for migration completely closed off – many gamble their life savings and their lives against hazardous desert and sea crossings in the hope of a better future.
While it is true that the criminal gangs behind these sea crossings bear a huge responsibility for what amounts to mass murder, it is not enough to simply shift all of the blame onto the people smugglers who herd desperate people into unseaworthy boats to make the voyage to Europe.
This weekend’s drowning of 900 migrants is also Europe’s political disgrace and the world’s shame.
The increase in deaths was predicted
The truth is that the latest tragedy is not just a shocking loss but entirely expected. The steady increase in deaths at sea was predicted last year when European governments, including the UK, decided rescuing people was a ‘pull’ factor and that scaling back search and rescue operations would discourage potential migrants.
This was a deliberate decision to defend borders – to create a Fortress Europe – rather than address the more difficult underlying causes of the migration crisis. It allowed people to die as a result.
Furthermore, as a direct consequence of this decision, the risk of a migrant drowning at sea has tripled since last year.
On 27 May, the European Commission will adopt a new agenda on migration. Yet we cannot stand by for another month whilst people die every day in the Mediterranean. Even before this summit, Europe’s governments must:
- Restart the search and rescue missions as a matter of urgency.
- Commit to joint political and financial responsibility across Europe for the rescue operations.
- Respect the rights of the migrants and asylum seekers under international humanitarian law.
Once this is done, and only once this is done, can we consider the next steps.
Giving potential migrants a choice
Next steps means not just tackling the people traffickers and failed states that allow gangs to operate with impunity, but also giving people choices; the choice to live a life of dignity and security and the right to a home. This can only be done by contributing to ending conflict and by tackling extreme poverty and vulnerability.
The communities we help in countries like Bangladesh or Ethiopia, as well as the refugees we work with fleeing conflict in places like Syria, always remind us that they do not want to see their young men and women leaving home and heading off for the uncertainties of illegal migration. They simply want the opportunity to escape poverty.
We can not stand by and let people die in pursuit of this basic right.