10/12/2014 03:00 GMT | Updated 08/02/2015 05:59 GMT

Refugees Crossing the Mediterranean Deserve Protection, Not Russian Roulette

The crossing of the Mediterranean Sea is like a game of Russian roulette for thousands of children and their families, women, men, so many fleeing from war, violence and persecution.

3 October, 2013 was a day of death for as many as 368 refugees from Eritrea. They were so close to the island of Lampedusa, almost ashore, yet so far from being safe.

A week later, 11 October 2013, another 268 refugees from Syria died when their boat also sank, almost as close this time to the island of Malta.

The image of dead bodies in a hundred-meter-long row on a dock is now etched in the memory of millions of people across the world and Lampedusa has become an iconic place, the symbolic gate of Europe, the mirage of freedom and safety.

In 2014, more than 200,000 desperate people risked their lives taking to the Mediterranean Sea. This has been a record year for movements by sea towards Europe by people fleeing war and persecution in their home countries. Italy alone has received more than 160,000 people, half of whom come from just two/three war torn countries.

Among many accounts we heard from refugees, there was a couple whose story stuck in our minds. It was September 2014 in Milan, a major hub for Syrian refugees trying to make their way towards the countries of northern Europe. The majority of them have ended up in Sweden and Germany. They had arrived in Southern Italy by sea, only a couple of weeks before. Back in Damascus, Abdel and Zeina were living a wonderful life with their four children, "like no one else in the world". Then the war broke out, and they fled to Libya in search of safety. But in 2014, as conflict increasingly began to engulf Libya, they had no option but to take the sea route.

They departed in an unsafe boat carrying more than 500 people. When their vessel was spotted they thought they would be safe - it all happened in a moment. As excitement grew, people in the hold started pushing to get on deck and the boat started lurching wildly; by the time rescue came within reach, their four children had vanished into the sea.

A month later, the magnitude of their tragedy was starting to dawn on them but the couple still clung to some faint hope. "I saw them put their lifejackets on, they could still be safe" said Abdel "We just want to know whether they're dead or not, we can't bear this weight anymore."

Even if not all the people coming to Europe are fleeing from persecution or war like Abdel and Zeina, those taking to rickety boats still deserve help. When people are found in distress at sea, the first priority is to protect life by ensuring timely rescue and safe disembarkation, regardless of their legal status. Right after the two major tragedies off the coasts of Lampedusa and Malta, the Italian government launched the search and rescue operation baptized Mare Nostrum. In one year of activity, its commendable efforts, together with the Italian Coast Guard, contributed to the rescue of some 150,000 people, not to mention the fundamental role of private and commercial vessels which also upheld the strong tradition of rescue at sea by savings many lives.

Our colleagues working in the field in Southern Italy tell us of people on their last legs, suffering from thirst, starvation, exposure and mistreatment. We have witnessed first-hand hundreds of women, children and the elderly only making it to the shore on the shoulders of their fellow travelers, unable to walk on their own.

People who arrive say that this is the journey of death, the most tormented and terrifying experience one could ever go through. They left loved ones behind, were tortured, separated, deprived of their own belongings, only to end up in unseaworthy vessels, and packed in a few meters of space with hundreds of other people.

It is no wonder that a significant number of people do not make it in the end. Many of them fall far before reaching the port of departure. Many others perish or go missing during the fearful sea crossing. So far, in 2014, some 3,400 people have lost their lives in an attempt to reach Europe's sea borders, often within sight of land.

We at UNHCR believe that there is no reason at all for which people should risk their last hopes and often die at sea. We also believe that people who are forced to flee their country have the right to find security and safety in other countries. The time has come for the EU institutions and Member States to step up their collective action to strengthen rescue operations, provide swift access to asylum procedures to those in need of international protection and increase legal alternatives to prevent people from having to undertake these dangerous sea crossings.

Carlotta Sami, UNHCR Spokesperson for Southern Europe

Iosto Ibba, UNHCR Public Information consultant