An Italian coastguard vessel rescues boat people near Lampedusa Island. UNHCR/ A. Di Loreto.

An Italian coastguard vessel rescues boat people near Lampedusa Island. UNHCR/ A. Di Loreto.

By Lara Palmisano. @larapalmisano

War, poverty and human rights abuses forced most of the 137,000 desperate people who made the risky journey to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe during the first six months of 2015, making this a big refugee crisis.

According to UNHCR, 63,000 refugees have reached Greece by sea this year, and 62,000 in Italy. These are much higher numbers than in mid-2014.
During the first half of the current year, according to IOM, 1,865 people died in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe. Survivors often report violence and abuse by people traffickers. Many refugees pay thousands of dollars each to them, and robbery of refugees is also common.

“As Europe debates the best way to deal with the rising crisis on the Mediterranean, we must be clear: most of the people arriving by sea in Europe are refugees, seeking protection from war and persecution,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres in a press release on July 1, 2015.

The largest refugees group by nationality in 2015 is Syrian, followed by Eritreans, Somalian, other sub-Saharan Africans, and Afghans. They take boots from Syria because the huge civil war in the country and its related chaos has given people traffickers freedom to exploit refugees, with inadequate intervention from the authorities.

Championing the rights of poor migrants is difficult as the economic climate in Europe is still gloomy, many Europeans are unemployed and wary of foreign workers, and EU countries are divided about it.

In the meanwhile, some political parties are taking advantage of this emergency inciting people against the refugees and the migrants, with misinformation and inflammatory speech. The problem then, is not only for the people who lose life during the journey, but also for whom actually arrived in Europe.

“One of the bigger problem is the misinformation, coupled with the indifference, and this include everybody, from the big institution to the single citizen. This is a huge crisis, and the given tools to handle it are entirely insufficient,” said Maria Ancona, president of the Italian non-profit Associazione Sud, who is working to assist some refugees arriving in Apulia, South Italy.

Italy and Greece, on the frontline of this silent emergency, have urged their EU partners to help.

For years the EU has been struggling to harmonize asylum policy. That is difficult with 28 member states, each with their own police force and judiciary.
EU governments are arguing over a proposal to spread the housing asylum seekers, under a quota system. France and Germany say the European Commission’s proposal needs to be revised. The European Union failed on Thursday July 7, 2015 to reach a deal to resolve a migration crisis in the Mediterranean, and instead set a deadline of July 20 to reach an agreement on how to redistribute 40,000 asylum seekers currently in Italy and Greece.

Europe has a clear responsibility to help those seeking protection from war and persecution.

As Guterres said, “To deny that responsibility is to threaten the very building blocks of the humanitarian system Europe worked so hard to build. European countries must shoulder their fair share in responding to the refugee crisis, at home and abroad.”