The current tragedy in the Mediterranean Sea, where thousands of people are fleeing conflict, persecution and violence and trying to reach safety in Europe is of major concern to IFSW. European Governments have failed to deal with this humanitarian crisis which claimed 3,500 lives in 2014 and continues to worsen. According to the UN and the International Organisation for Migration, some 1,776 people are dead or missing so far this year, compared with 56 for the same period last year and given the current trends migrant deaths might be as high as 30,000 this year alone.
Poverty, political instability and civil war in Africa and the Middle East are powerful “push factors” for migration. Syrians, who account for the largest number of arrivals by boat, have escaped a civil war that has killed more than 200,000 and turned nearly 4 million more into refugees. Refugees from Eritrea, the second-largest group of migrants, cite economic issues, forced conscription and a repressive government as their reasons for leaving. Many other Mediterranean migrants are people from sub-Saharan Africa who moved to Libya looking for work but are now seeking to escape violence and instability there. Many are highly skilled people trying to make a better life for themselves and their families and likely to make a valuable contribution to countries in the European Union if accepted by member countries.
Although Italy has taken the brunt of this exodus due to its proximity to the north African coast, trafficking in persons and illegal migration cannot be solved by one country alone. This requires urgent global and regional action and the means to coordinate efforts to prevent such tragedies and prosecute those who traffic in immigrants. Although there is need to address the root causes since many people are fleeing countries where their lives and rights are at risk, the European Union’s immediate priority should be saving lives at sea and respecting its international legal obligation not to send migrants back to places where they face threats to life or freedom. European Governments should immediately restore the previous search and rescue plans which were recently suspended to prevent the further escalation of deaths of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea and there are now some signs that this may be happening.
While there needs to be an upscaled emergency humanitarian response, there are powerful global forces at play that are generating this crisis which also need to be addressed. Violence and instability are often caused by global inequalities and the persistence of poverty and exploitation, which directly relates to human rights abuses, the consequences of colonisation, and the persistence of poverty, racism and inequality. Social workers have a particular interest in trying to tackle some of these entrenched concerns that continue to generate migrants. The global social work community have committed themselves to four key commitments, with the first Global Agenda commitment aimed at achieving social and economic equality and the second promoting the dignity and worth of the person. Both of these are violated by the continued unjust international social, political and economic disparities which are being played out in the tragic circumstances of the Mediterranean refugees, asylum seekers and would-be immigrants.
Social work has a long history of supporting people who suffer the consequences of war and the profession has throughout its history promoted engagement, peace, integration and social and economic development. Social workers will be working on the ground in various countries with the consequences of this migration and assisting the migrants in practical ways, as they have always done. IFSW urges all parties involved in dealing with the after-effects of this continuing tragic situation in the Mediterranean to do what they can to reduce this human tragedy which is incompatible with human rights, and notes that in accordance with international agreements, refugees and migrants must have the right to be protected in such adversities.
Issued by Nigel Hall
IFSW Human Rights Commissioner