A human crisis in need of a humanitarian solution

By Ollie McKenna

On 10th July, a wooden fishing vessel set sail from Senegal with hopes of seeking asylum in Spain’s Canary Islands. A month later the vessel was found drifting 1,000 nautical miles south-east of its destination. Of the 100 that set sail from Senegal, it is believed that 63 have lost their lives. Legal migration pathways to Europe from the west coast of Africa are minimal, allowing smugglers to exploit treacherous pathways such as the Atlantic migration route. 

In spite of the tragic loss of life people will continue to make these voyages. The reason – necessity. For some these voyages present an opportunity to escape epidemic, famine, persecution, and war. But is it not easy to solve a problem when the common denominator is the necessity of life? Apparently not. 

In the midst of such politicking watery graves continue to mount

Much of the battle against the boats is played on a national level with discourse being dictated by prosperous economic zones in Europe. The United Kingdom is the most recent government to wage war on small boats, with Rishi Sunak coining it as one of his five pledges. The Government has positioned itself on the right of this watery battleground, with the Rwanda Bill currently deemed unlawful by the Court of Appeal. Sunak and his Home Secretary, Suella Braverman, appear to be plagiarising a political ploy of former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, who waged war on the boats himself in 2013 to bolster a successful election campaign. 

In the midst of such politicking watery graves continue to mount, although small boat arrivals on UK shores are currently down ten percent compared to the same period in 2022. Yet there is a clear failure amongst nation states to acknowledge the moral reasoning for stopping the boats. This war of fishing dinghies has been fuelled by right wing rhetoric and not by a desire to end needless deaths. 

At the moment governments cannot be trusted to see beyond the next election cycle. The mere phraseology “stopping the boats” is being used as political bludgeoning device to recanvass dwindling Tory support. So, if not through governments, can we find a solution from another source? 

The International Organization of Migration (IOM) proposed opening more legal pathways for migration, whilst also championing humanitarian visas which are granted by some national governments to fulfil their legal obligation to protect refugees. The issue is that these organisations find themselves caught in no-man’s-land. To open legal pathways and to increase the number of humanitarian visas is the remit of sovereign states, not non-governmental organizations (NGOs). 

Solutions to this humanitarian crisis appear buried underneath a pile of paperwork and politics

This clash between national governments and NGOs has been crystallised by recent events in Italy, where the number of migrants arriving at its shores has doubled from 2022 to 2023. In February, the Italian government passed a law that prevents rescue ships from carrying out consecutive operations. This law was seen in action when Sea Watch’s rescue ship – Aurora – was detained for returning migrants to a non-designated port. Italy “cannot forbid NGOs from rescuing migrants at sea because it would be breaking international law,” said Irini Papanicolopulu, Professor of International Law at SOAS University of London. “That’s why it passed all these laws, like the recent decree in February, to discourage them in other ways.”

Sadly, solutions to this humanitarian crisis appear buried underneath a pile of paperwork and politics. Unless a treaty can be signed that creates consensus and cooperation on the issue, a war of floating dinghies and wooden skiffs will commence. 

Image: Mstyslav Chernov via Wikimedia Commons

One thought on “A human crisis in need of a humanitarian solution

  • What challenges and dangers do migrants face when attempting to reach Europe from West Africa through irregular and perilous routes?
    Telkom University


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