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North African Migrants Risk Their Lives in Mediterranean Waters

Migrants are seen aboard a navy ship before being disembarked in the Sicilian harbor of Augusta, June 1, 2014.
Migrants are seen aboard a navy ship before being disembarked in the Sicilian harbor of Augusta, June 1, 2014.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is calling for the international community to respond to the life-threatening needs of increasing populations of North African migrants seeking haven in Europe aboard unsafe vessels on the Mediterranean Sea.

In three days last week three merchant ships rescued more than 5,200 men, women and children from unsafe boats (Reuters, JUNE 8) in Mediterranean waters, bringing the total so far in 2014 to more than 50,000 people who have risked their lives to get to Italy and other European countries.

Flavio Di Giacomo is a spokesperson for IOM in Rome. He said the number of migrant arrivals in the first five months of this year has already exceeded the 40,000 who sought refuge in Italy in the 12 months of 2013.

“The problem is, in our opinion, more a humanitarian problem, than the problem of numbers. That’s because those people… actually they are risking their lives at sea, and it’s very complicated to save all of these lives,” said Di Giacomo.

The Italian government initiated a Mediterranean effort called Operation Mare Nostrum last October. Di Giacomo said they started Mare Nostrum – which means “Our Seas” in Italian – after a vessel capsized off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa and more than 360 people drowned. The European Union responded to the deaths by pledging $30 million to fund immigration facilities for those who safely reach European shores. (Reuters JUNE 8)

Mare Nostrum has succeeded in rescuing thousands of people from the sea, Di Giacomo said, but some tragedies in the Mediterranean are inevitable.

“Last month there was a shipwreck on May 13 which caused the deaths of at least around 17 migrants. But maybe more than that, because a witness told us that probably 60 migrants died at sea. So it’s very difficult to avoid shipwrecks,” Di Giacomo said.

There must be a comprehensive approach to managing the massive influx of migrants coming into Europe, Di Giacomo argued.

“IOM is calling for a high-level debate on these flows that could bring together all the countries of destination, of origin, and transit, because it is needed to offer alternatives to migrants,” Giacomo said. “And to tell them, OK, do not risk your life because you can enter Europe safely.”

He emphasized the importance of enhancing the legal avenues for migrants to go Europe, citing the example of “reinforcing resettlement programs in order to transfer migrants to Europe. Or, for example, some people say it may be possible to establish migrant centers in the country of transit… where a migrant can be provided with adequate legal assistance.”

It is also important to tackle traffickers and smugglers, a big challenge Di Giacomo pointed out that requires cooperation of the international community.

Trafficking is a major problem “because cooperation must be reinforced among countries in order to identify and to prosecute the traffickers because those are people who actually are taking advantage of the desperation of migrants, and they are getting rich.”