Brothers Ibrahim Awadallah, Mohammed Awadallah and Mamoun Doghmosh, who survived for four days after smugglers capsized their migrant boat. Photo: New York TimesSix migrants floated in the freezing ocean in September, desperately trying not to slip under the thrashing waves. They had just watched 500 people drown in a small, unseaworthy boat captained by people smugglers who had since deserted them.
The Palestinians, Syrians and Egyptians were plucked from the ocean by rescue authorities. They later told authorities they had heard the smugglers laughing as they left behind the hundreds of floating bodies.
The smugglers, who had charged each asylum seeker US$2000 to seek refuge in Europe from Egypt, had deliberately rammed the boat with their own when the 500-plus migrants refused to move into a smaller, unseaworthy vessel. The 300 people below decks drowned almost immediately as the 200 people above scrambled to survive.
The tragedy has been labelled the worst shipwreck in years. And it happened during what has now been declared the “deadliest year” for migrants, with a record 4868 people dying while trying to cross treacherous oceans in 2014 – double the 2013 tally.
According to International Organisation for Migration (IOM) figures released this week, the crossing from the Mediterranean to Europe claimed over 3000 lives, while 540 migrants died in the Bay of Bengal. At least 307 died trying to cross the land border between Mexico and the USA. There have been no known asylum seeker deaths in Australian waters in 2014.
The IOM says “desperation migration” due to the unprecedented number of man-made crises needs to be addressed by political leadership to counter the “worrying rise of xenophobia”.
“All states have the international obligation to save lives of those seeking help,” said the IOM director-general, William Lacy Swing.
The number of people displaced around the world is now the highest since World War II, with 33.3 million people internally displaced and 16.7 million refugees.
Yet in response to these figures, western nations are moving in an opposite direction as they begin to scale back their rescue operations, rather than increase them.
Australia has effectively cut off the number of boats making the journey here through hardline policies that include turning back asylum seeker boats, sending asylum seekers to offshore processing centres and, in the latest tactic by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison, ending the option for genuine refugees in Indonesia to ever resettle in Australia. This month, the Senate passed the Migration Act, which means 30,000 asylum seekers who arrived by boats under the Labor government will be offered temporary protection visas, not permanent visas.
The Abbott government has argued that by “stopping the boats” they are saving lives at sea.
The United Kingdom is similarly winding back its response to sea rescue operations in the Mediterranean. In October, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that to reduce net immigration, the UK would no longer fund the Italian rescue mission, Mare Nostrum, which refugee advocates described as “morally shocking”.
The IOM continues to urge western countries to step up their rescue operations as an important approach to the asylum seeker surge.
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