Young lives lost at sea as migrants cross the eastern Mediterranean

Migrants are rescued by the Italian Navy in the Mediterranean Sea.
Migrants are rescued by the Italian Navy in the Mediterranean Sea. PHOTO: REUTERS

GENEVA - An average of two children have drowned every day since September 2015 as their families try to cross the eastern Mediterranean, and the number of child deaths is growing, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM). The IOM, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the United Nations Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) on Friday (Feb 19) called for better protection for those escaping conflict and despair.

Since last September, when the tragic death of toddler Aylan Kurdi captured the world's attention, more than 340 children, many of them babies and toddlers, have drowned in the eastern Mediterranean. The total number of children who have died may be even greater, the agencies say, with their bodies lost at sea.

"We cannot turn our faces away from the tragedy of so many innocent young lives and futures lost - or fail to address the dangers so many more children are facing," said UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake. "We may not have the ability now to end the desperation that causes so many people to try to cross the sea, but countries can and must co-operate to make such dangerous journeys safer. No one puts a child in a boat if a safer option is available."

The stretch of the Aegean Sea between Turkey and Greece is among the deadliest routes in the world for refugees and migrants. The winter's rough seas, overloading, and the poor quality of boats and lifesaving equipment increase the risk of capsizing, making the journey significantly more dangerous.

"These tragic deaths in the Mediterranean are unbearable and must stop," said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. "Many of the children and adults who have died were trying to join relatives in Europe. Organizing ways for people to travel legally and safely, through resettlement and family reunion programmes for example, should be an absolute priority, if we want to reduce the death toll," he added.

With children now accounting for 36 per cent of those on the move, the chance of them drowning in the Aegean Sea crossing from Turkey to Greece has grown proportionately. During the first six weeks of 2016, the IOM reported that 410 people drowned out of the 80,000 crossing the eastern Mediterranean. This amounts to 35-fold increase year-on-year from 2015.

"Counting lives is not enough. We must act," said IOM Director General William Lacy Swing. "This is not only a Mediterranean problem, or even a European one. It is a humanitarian catastrophe in the making that demands the entire world's engagement. Haiti's 2010 earthquake was not a matter for only one hemisphere, nor was the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami. Those disasters were met by an outpouring of humanitarian action. So must this one."