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Whatever Our Different Views About Migration No Child Should Drown

07/11/2016 17:08
Anton Chalakov via Getty Images

No child should drown - certainly not sunk in a fake lifejacket peddled by unscrupulous opportunists, while the world averts its eyes. This is my answer when asked whether migration is encouraged by Save the Children's new rescue ship in the Mediterranean, the Vos Hestia.

Last year was full of final straws, with a capsizing killing more than 800 people off Libya in April and drowned toddler Alan Kurdi found face-down on a Turkish beach in September. But in 2016, the Mediterranean is a deadlier grave that ever; engulfing 4,100 people already; more than last year's grim total and double the death toll of the Titanic.

In this increasingly globalised and connected world, supply inevitably reacts to demand. People-smuggling is a modern-day gold rush, attracting the good, bad and ugly. What refugees and migrants initially perceived as a helpful service, delivering them from hell, is now a ruthless and complex dystopia, a dark web where hope is traded for life.

Operation Sophia, the EU's anti-smuggling initiative, operates in the busy stretch of water off Northern Africa where most are rescued. Sophia was named after a baby girl born on board a vessel involved in an initial patrol. This unconventional arrival of a baby starkly reminds us that children, the most utterly vulnerable of all, are the real epicentre of this crisis.

When temperatures drop further and sea conditions worsen, sleeping on our ship will be like trying to meditate on a roller coaster. Winter crossings on unseaworthy boats increase the likelihood of dying during this crossing to one death to every 47 arrivals.

Earlier this week, Save the Children rescued 100 people in one day, including two young children whose mother hadn't made it. These orphans are now under the care of our child protection team, who work closely with the Italian authorities. Prayers were said on board for their mother. The rescue came within 24 hours of two rubber dinghies capsizing and 240 people are believed to have drowned. Our team spotted two women who had been out at sea for hours and brought them aboard the safety of our ship - the lucky few.

The area we search is three times the size of Great Britain and contains oil fields, their jutting flames often the only navigation reference point for migrants and refugees who steer the dinghies themselves, usually at night without enough fuel. Overwhelmingly packed with non-swimmers, these rafts take in water quickly and panic sets in, people pray, confessing as if it's their last day. No-one takes this risk unless what's behind them is more terrifying that what's in front.

The Save the Children crew take turns doing 'the watch', throughout the whole day and night. Standing with binoculars, we squint at the horizon and check whether what we see is debris or potentially a person clinging to a raft. The pre-dawn watch is busiest, where we receive the most SOS calls and find boats packed with people that have spent the night adrift. We make sure they have food, water, blankets - they're exhausted and hunker down to sleep immediately. Then in the morning, our first task is to make the tea. A round of tea for 400 people takes four hours.

Syrians understandably elicit the most public sympathy - children are being bombed in their beds in Aleppo so of course their families have to flee. Whereas stories of migration, people fleeing extreme and desperate poverty, remain largely unheard across Europe. But in Sicily, where our rescue ship docks, migrant children's tales are ubiquitous. Just chatting to a Gambian boy over gelato, he spoke of his younger brother, shot by smugglers en route. On arrival he called his mother but learned she too was dead, having succumbed to a long standing illness.

Save the Children's free helpline will give him practical, legal and medical advice to protect him. We also run drop in centres and night shelters for children continuing their perilous journey across Europe. In Italy, every child has the right to protection, no matter where they're from. Italy doesn't perpetuate a narrative that it's possible to distinguish a child as deserving or undeserving. Like the relentless humanity shown by the Italian Coast Guard under Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's government, Italy leads by example, while too many European states' prefer to pull up the draw-bridge, despite the failure of walls and fences to contain the desperate flow. Like a half inflated balloon, you press one side and the other expands. Human instinct is to survive.

Our post-Brexit country needs a system that can implement a policy we have already agreed: to grant asylum to those in danger of abuse or persecution; a proud decision taken after World War Two.

No, Europe doesn't have enough space for the population of the world. A million arrivals in a remarkable year may alarm Europe's 500 million residents. But most refugees long for a speedy return to whatever shattered remains of their homes remain standing, when, inshallah, peace is finally agreed. But until the driving forces of migration - conflict and extreme poverty - are traced back to the cause and dealt with, peace and development will remain strangled. And progress has been made: we've halved child deaths in a generation.

And we can go further, by ensuring that children don't drown in our shores. When I was on board Save the Children's rescue ship, we helped save nearly 400 people in one day, including a one month old baby and a woman who was nine months pregnant and staggered on board helped by three of our rescue team.

I want baby Sophia to grow up unable to comprehend allowing more than 4,100 people a year meet their maker so perversely, not casualties of the war zones they've fled, but en route to supposed sanctuary. I want Sophia to find mass drownings to be abhorrent, an alien concept, not the norm. As alien as seeing bedraggled African teenagers pop up on the news between Neighbours and EastEnders. If you catch a glimpse of our rescue ship in the background footage, be assured that we're not encouraging migration. But we are saving lives.

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