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The deafening silence of 700 lost souls

by Elhadj As Sy, IFRC | International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) - Switzerland
Monday, 30 May 2016 21:05 GMT

Migrants are seen on a capsizing boat before a rescue operation by Italian navy ships "Bettica" and "Bergamini" (unseen) off the coast of Libya in this handout picture released by the Italian Marina Militare on May 25, 2016. Marina Militare/Handout via REUTERS

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

With every new migrant tragedy at sea, indifference seems to be growing, hardening

Seven hundred killed in a plane crash. Seven hundred killed in a terrorist attack. Hundreds killed in a building collapse.

For each such event, the world would stop. Maybe for a few hours, perhaps for a few days. Tens of thousands of words would be published, hundreds of broadcast hours spent analyzing, questioning, reflecting. From these events, headlines would be written that would rise above daily commentary to stir and inspire.

I remember, the day after the September 11 attacks on New York, reading the headline in Le Monde: “Nous sommes tous Américains” – we are all Americans. It captured our collective anguish and grief, and called to our better selves, to our shared humanity.

Last week, more than 700 people may have drowned off the coast of southern Italy causing barely a ripple in the public eye. Three separate boats, probably dangerously overcrowded, almost certainly lacking in safety equipment, sunk. Hundreds of lives lost in terror and fear.

Where are the horrified headlines and the ensuing hours or days of reflection? More than 700 people dead within sight of European shores, and it seems to have barely registered in our public conscience.

Last year, similar tragedies stirred some outcry. But even then, there was a terrible indifference to the plight of those seeking hope, dignity and safety. The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies called for an end to the indifference, and for people to remember that people who migrate have rights, including to our respect and care.

But with every new tragedy at sea this indifference seems to be growing, hardening.

We cannot accept this. As the weather becomes warmer and as the Mediterranean becomes calmer, we can expect that the number of people seeking refuge in Europe will again climb. Efforts to close old routes, predictably, forced people to find new paths. The central Mediterranean route between Libya and Italy has become very popular again.

A solution must be found. Any real solution must address the factors that push people to take the difficult decision to leave home. The decision to leave is not one that is taken lightly. It is one that is taken because home is no longer safe, or because hope is extinguished.

While there is war in Syria, conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, and poverty and persecution, in other parts of the world, people will continue to leave their homes in search of a better and safer life. This will not change until the factors pushing them change. If they cannot reach Europe, then they will go elsewhere, or they will stay in countries like Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon – countries that have shown solidarity and hospitality over the past five years. They may even find themselves trapped in places where their basic needs cannot be met and where their rights cannot be protected.

We repeat our call – our plea – for all governments and institutions to ensure the protection of migrants, and for all people to recognize their right to safety and dignity. We call on the media and other voices to reframe discussion about migration, and to pay due recognition to this humanitarian tragedy.

We call on authorities to make the journeys of migrants safer by expanding legal channels and search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, and by creating faster and fairer asylum processing systems at arrival. We call on all partners along major migration routes to address the vulnerabilities that are part of irregular migration, and to raise awareness about the rights that all migrants have. We call on authorities in Europe and around the Mediterranean to work with local actors present at points of departure, including National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, so that they can support people who choose to reintegrate into their home countries.

For our part, we will continue to support all those who need our help to the best of our capacity. We will provide first aid for people stepping off boats or washing up on shore. We will care for them, and support them, and treat them with respect and dignity. And we will accompany them on their journeys, from the moment they decide to flee, to the moment, hopefully, that they find peace and safety.

We will work with all partners, and in all places where we are needed. Our tens of thousands of volunteers will continue to be a sign of hope, and an antidote to the creeping indifference.

And we will mourn all those who died. Because human beings deserve nothing less.

Nous sommes tous Syriens. Nous sommes tous Afghans. Nous sommes tous Somaliens, Pakistanais, Nigérians. Nous sommes tous des migrants.

Elhadj As Sy is secretary general of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.