THE BLOG

Is There Ever a Justification for Leaving People to Drown?

28/10/2014 14:22 GMT | Updated 28/12/2014 10:59 GMT

Why do people leave their homes, travel by foot many hundreds of miles, risk attack, exploitation, starvation and hunger, to board rickety, crowded boats (the kind that are known to have sank previously, killing hundreds of people in one go)?

If you believe the UK government, which has refused to support search and rescue for migrants attempting dangerous and deadly journeys across the Mediterranean, people do this because they know if their boat sinks, they MIGHT be rescued.

Emphasis on the "might", because more than 2,500 people are estimated to have died trying to cross the Med this year so far, despite the Italian "Mare Nostrum" search and rescue service being active during this time.

The real number of deaths will never be known, because many bodies are lost at sea. And without Mare Nostrum (the operation is due to end this week), how many more thousands will be lost?

The reality is people make the incredibly dangerous crossing because many of them are fleeing war, persecution and torture. Barely a day goes past where our newspapers are not full of headlines about the conflict in Syria, or "attempted genocide" in Iraq.

It isn't exactly little known that instability in the Middle East has caused the worst humanitarian crisis in decades: the UK government knows that more than three million people have fled Syria due to the conflict there - in fact 130,000 people crossed the border from Syria into Turkey over just one weekend in September.

So it's hardly surprising that some of those people (a tiny number in comparison to the millions of refugees hosted in the developing world) will attempt to reach safety and protection in Europe.

But because there is no safe and legal way for asylum seekers to enter Europe, many will be forced to attempt the dangerous, and in many cases deadly, journey by boat.

It would be too kind to say the UK government's strategy to deal with people attempting to reach Europe, which focuses on "border management", misses the point. Turning our backs on drowning people is indefensible, unforgivable even.

The Telegraph goes as far as to describe it as "sickening, disgusting, inhumane". And that's because as a strategy, it's not only heartless, but ineffective. Building barriers will not stop people attempting to scale them, not when they are fleeing for their lives.

The UK should be pressing for a Europe-wide system which allows people to access protection safely; and in the meantime, contributing to a rescue operation that saves lives, instead of justifying leaving people to drown.