At Harvard, the beginning of spring means reading outside, throwing around a football, and forgetting about schoolwork. In North Africa, on the other hand, the onset of warmer weather marks the beginning of a time period defined by limited hope and grave danger—a time when an increased number of smuggler boats attempt to transport refugees to Europe from war torn, poverty-stricken areas of the Middle East and Africa. This past week, the fears surrounding these immensely risky escape attempts were realized when a ship carrying hundreds of migrants capsized off the Libyan coast.
This specific tragedy, which appears to have resulted in the death of several hundred refugees, is far from anomalous—particularly this year. In fact, while nearly the same number of people have tried to enter Italy through these sorts of ships in 2015 as they did the year before, the International Organization for Migration reports that the death toll has increased tenfold—a trend that can be traced at least in part to the cancellation of Italy’s search and rescue program, Mare Nostrum. The international community, and particularly the European Union, must work together to protect the safety of these people, especially those that are fleeing from the armed conflict in Libya.
Before its cancellation, Mare Nostrum proved to be an effective program, credited with saving more than 160,000 migrants over the course of one year alone. In the aftermath of this week’s events, the EU should create a similarly robust search and rescue operation as soon as possible, to ensure that people fleeing armed conflict are not drowning while trying to do so. After all, many of the countries to and from which migrants are fleeing are incapable of dealing with this issue on their own; the onus is on the international community to create a concrete, fair policy that will help these refugees.
Today, as the world mourns, Italy is at a loss. As the Italian minister for European affairs, Sandro Gozi, put it: “There’s not even enough space in Sicily’s cemeteries to bury the dead.” But even as complacency and frustration may seem like the most straightforward approach to handling these atrocities—especially in a time of financial restraint and high unemployment in Europe—the international community must not forget that many of the people coming from Libya are fleeing an armed conflict. They are truly refugees, and thus, the rest of the world has a responsibility to these refugees to help them find a home outside their unsafe native land.
Any permanent solution to the North African refugee crisis will have to focus on addressing the problems in the countries from which migrants come. But until these countries demonstrate the capability to change on their own, it is the international community’s responsibility to help protect the safety of these people, whether they are at sea or on land. If we do not act, stories of migrant ships capsizing on the coast of Libya will continue to fill the pages of our newspapers and eat at our collective conscience.