The deaths of 300 migrants this week should shake us to our core

A coffin carrying the body of a migrant who died crossing the Mediterranean is loaded on to a car in Sicily (AP)

The European Union’s search-and-rescue operation in the Mediterranean is “woefully inadequate”, the United Nations said this week after more than 300 migrants died off the coast of Libya.

According to UN figures, more people than ever before in human history are on the move. In 2013, it is estimated that three per cent of the world’s population, or 232 million people, were leaving the countries in which they were born. North America is a huge magnet for people from Latin America and Asia.

There is a steady flow of people from South Asia to the oil-based economies of the Gulf States and from sub-Saharan countries of Africa to Europe, particularly where there is conflict, such as in the Central African Republic, northern Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and, more recently, Syria, Iraq, Libya and Palestine. But it is the attempted illegal migration of people across the Mediterranean from Africa and the Middle East to the EU that so frequently hits the headlines.

On October 3 2013, for example, the world was shocked to hear how 360 men, women and children had drowned close to Lampedusa, an island off the coast of Sicily. Most of them were fleeing the situation in Somalia and Eritrea, and had died attempting to enter Europe by making the hazardous crossing of the Mediterranean.

The previous July Pope Francis, making his first pastoral visit outside Rome, had visited Lampedusa and called for a “reawakening of consciences” to counter the indifference shown to migrants. “We have lost a sense of brotherly responsibility,” he said and “have forgotten how to cry” for migrants lost at sea. He also denounced the traffickers who exploited migrants.

In the year up to last October 150,000 migrants, attempting to reach Europe from North Africa in mostly old and dilapidated boats, had been picked up by the Italian navy. The International Organisation for Migrants has reported that 2014 was the deadliest on record for migrants.

Most recently, at the start of 2015 two cargo vessels – the Blue Sky M and the Ezadeen – between them carrying over 1,000 migrants in their filthy holds and abandoned by their crews, were towed into Italian ports.

But the strain on Italian resources proved too great and it was announced last October that their rescue operations, known as the Mare Nostrum mission, were to be replaced with a more limited operation under the name of Triton, run by the EU border agency Frontex.

Triton, however, covers only a specific area of operations and possesses few vessels and aircraft for search and rescue operations, whereas the Mediterranean is over 2.5 million square kilometres. According to Maurice Wren, the chief executive of the Refugee Council: “The only outcome of withdrawing help will be to witness more people needlessly and shamefully dying on Europe’s doorstep.” This sentiment echoes the concern of Pope Francis when last November he addressed the 700 MEPs of the European Parliament, representing more than 500 million citizens, and said: “We cannot allow the Mediterranean to become a vast graveyard.”

It is estimated that there are more than 600,000 people in North Africa waiting to cross to Europe. Libya, with more than 20 migrant detention centres, is the busiest transit route for Africans heading illegally to Europe. Here, and wherever they find themselves, migrants are at the mercy of traffickers, terrorists and corrupt officials. Europe’s response to these people, most of whom are seeking economically either to better themselves and their families or fleeing poverty and conflicts and hoping for asylum, is essentially to build what has come to be known as Fortress Europe.

After much pressure from Europe, Morocco for example has installed between itself and the Spanish enclave of Melilla a five yard high fence topped with razor to stop waves of migrants crossing into Europe. (Last December 200 migrants attempted to storm the fence, just one of 65 such stormings last year.) In Greece a twelve and a half feet fence rolled with barbed wire has been erected on its border with Turkey, with Greek foot patrols and watch towers, plus 23 thermal vision cameras, funded by the EU. Bulgaria is doing the same at its border with Turkey.

Moreover, since 2006 Eurosur or the European Border Surveillance System has been established to regulate the EU’s 7,400 km of land and 57,800 km of coastline borders. It aims to create “a situational awareness” of troubled spots in the areas mentioned, plus Calais where the situation of those seeking to enter the UK illegally is dire.

On World Day of Migrants and Refugees in 2013, Pope Francis issued a powerful statement concerning how many of us react when facing this matter of migration. Acknowledging the many different issues that give rise to migration, he was adamant that migrants and refugees “are not pawns on the chessboard of humanity”.

He went on to note that “not infrequently, the arrival of migrants, displaced persons, asylum seekers and refugees gives rise to suspicion and hostility. There is a fear that society will become less secure, that identity and culture will be lost, that competition for jobs will become stiffer and even that criminal activity will increase.” He utterly condemned the various forms of human trafficking and enslavement and concluded by calling for a change of attitude of the part of everyone.

In place of defensiveness, fear, indifference and marginalisation, the Pope advocated “attitudes based on a culture of encounter, the only culture of building a better, more just and fraternal world”. Surely this is a challenge for us all.