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Time to end the denial of ongoing mass deaths in the Mediterranean

by Jan Egeland | @NRC_Egeland | Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC)
Wednesday, 23 January 2019 13:43 GMT

Rescuers carry life vests of migrants, intercepted off the coast in the Mediterranean Sea, after arriving on a rescue boat at the port of Malaga, southern Spain, December 10, 2018. REUTERS/Jon Nazca

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

The European denial of ongoing mass deaths on their Mediterranean doorstep is equalled only by the U.S. disinterest in the deep crisis in neighbouring Central America

Jan Egeland, Secretary General, Norwegian Refugee Council 

I am a European and ashamed of how we have learned to ignore the haemorrhaging of human lives every week for years at our Southern sea border. I thought we had a common European belief in basic human values that would fuel a continuous outrage as bodies of countless, desperate fellow human beings are continuously washed up on Mediterranean shores. 

I remember when European leaders, organisations and columnists in 1989  expressed their collective outrage about those who had died fleeing across the crumbling Berlin Wall. They all declared that we should “never again” see people die in their attempt to flee to a better life in Europe. They could not have been more wrong. Around 250 died trying to escape across the Berlin Wall during the three decades from 1961 to 1989. Ten times as many, 2000 – 3000 men, women and children, now die every single year in their attempt to escape their hopelessness and reach protection and a better life in Europe.

The silence surrounding these mass drownings is unacceptable and hypocritical. European politicians and media are keen to discuss anything, from Trump’s wall to the smallest domestic problems, as long as we can avoid talking about the bodies floating in our precious holiday waters.


I thought naively, that the United States might be different. I travelled from Honduras to Washington DC in December to try to foment some interest in the deep crisis in the Southern neighbourhoods of the United States. After all, the caravans of poor Hondurans walking North in sandals and flip-flops had been prime time news in all US media for many weeks. President Trump had sent the US Army to the Mexican border to avoid the civilians, mostly women and children, to seek asylum directly in the US. The border wall controversy was about to shut down the US federal government. Surely, there would be interest in hearing from those of us who try to provide humanitarian relief in Honduras for the very people, who dream of caravans and a safe haven in the US?

Again, however, the great denial. The media and political leaders seemed more interested in faraway Middle East and in further away Afghans and Rohingya, than in the violence and poverty-stricken Central Americans. There is little interest in the reasons why so many in the Central American neighbourhood is giving up all hope for a future at home and who will risk their lives to try, repeatedly, to reach protection and prosperity in the US. 

In San Pedro Sula, Honduras, from where the most famous of the caravans originated, I witnessed young deportees, boys and girls, disembark their planes from the US. None of them were, according to the police present, “bad people” with a criminal record in the US or in Honduras. They were uneducated and unemployed youth who had given up on having a liveable future in their poor and violence-infested neighbourhoods. Some had fled gangs and could never return home. They all had one thing in common: their determination to try again to escape their total hopelessness and flee for the US. 


Unless Europe and the US start to treat the deep human crises in their Southern neighbourhoods with the seriousness they treated the 2008 banking crisis, there will be a continuous loss of human lives at their doorsteps, irrespective of all of the walls and barriers they may create.  

There is of course no easy fix to deep regional crises of poverty, inequality, lawlessness, repression and bad governance. But it should be self-evident that youth who are neither offered education, nor jobs, nor a minimum of security for themselves and their families will want to escape at any cost. I would do the same, and so would you.

It is therefore surprising that it so hard for humanitarian organisations, like my own, to find the necessary funding to provide the large education programmes and livelihood opportunities needed for the youth in North and West Africa, as well in Central America. Building walls and hunting terrorists and gang members is surely not going to solve the deep social and security problems. Our political leaders and leading media organisations must wake up and pay attention to the crises at their doorsteps.