Op-Ed: Tide of migrants in Mediterranean is the world’s problem

A survivor of the boat that overturned off the coast of Libya on Saturday disembarks from Italian Coast Guard ship Bruno Gregoretti at Catania Harbor in Italy on April 20.
A survivor of the boat that overturned off the coast of Libya on Saturday disembarks from Italian Coast Guard ship Bruno Gregoretti at Catania Harbor in Italy on April 20.
(Alessandra Tarantino / Associated Press)

A tide of death is surging on the Mediterranean Sea, last year the world’s most lethal migrant zone. Those waters swallowed 3,279 lives in 2014, a number we may one day consider small, if current trends continue.

This month, still not over, up to 2,000 of our fellow global citizens have been reported missing, and presumed drowned, in the waters off Libya. That’s 20 times what the International Organization for Migration, the agency I direct, had recorded by this time last year.

In the past week, the IOM has fielded reports of 400 migrants dead in a capsizing on April 14 south of Malta; 50 more on April 17; and as many as 800 lives lost off the coast of Libya, just over this past weekend. On Monday came word of two more boats in distress — one with between 150 and 200 migrants on board, the other with 300.


Survivors of these voyages tell tales of abuse and deprivation no human being should be forced to withstand. Last Friday, gangs reportedly put to sea more than 20 burn victims — one a 6-month-old baby girl — after a cooking fire swept through a Libyan “safe” house where smugglers were holding migrants before an upcoming voyage.

Apparently the criminals who organize these voyages felt it was more important to put injured men and women out to sea than to seek medical attention. Why not? Most had already paid for their passage, about $500 apiece.

In 2014, the IOM counted more than 5,000 fatalities of migrants in transit, worldwide, with nearly two-thirds of those deaths on the Mediterranean Sea. A month ago, IOM staffers worried that this year’s death toll could top 6,000 before Christmas. We now believe it could top that figure by July.

In keeping this grisly roster, we hope to raise the world’s consciousness about the fate of migrants, who gamble everything to live with the dignity and security that many of us take for granted.

But counting lives is not enough. We must act.

This is not a Mediterranean problem, or even a European one. It is a humanitarian catastrophe 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.

We must welcome those fleeing from the region’s conflict zones by raising resettlement quotas, issuing more humanitarian visas and extending Temporary Protected Status to citizens of countries in distress. The U.S. has done this repeatedly over the last four decades, to migrants from Haiti and Central America, among others. The U.S., and the rest of the world, can do it again, now, for those migrants fleeing the Middle East and Africa via Libya.


We must also begin a campaign of rescue, no matter how tough the circumstances or daunting the conditions.

They’re certainly tough and daunting in Libya, where the IOM estimates that as many as 300,000 undocumented guest workers are stranded, mainly Syrians and sub-Saharan Africans who must literally dodge bullets to get to the coast.

Yet, even in Libya, the situation is not hopeless. In recent weeks, the IOM has rescued more than 400 Senegalese migrants, delivering them into neighboring Tunisia and then flying them home to Dakar, their country’s capital.

The stories they told our staffers of their captivity at the hands of traffickers are among the most heart-rending I’ve heard in 50 years of foreign service: of men and boys dying of thirst in the desert; of midnight police raids that roust migrants from their beds — to be beaten, robbed and dragged off to crowded jails to endure months of deprivation.

In this crisis, we are not facing random acts of nature but the crimes of men. We must find, identify and prosecute these groups, if necessary by bringing the full force of international human rights law against the criminal smugglers. Crimes against humanity can be prosecuted by any government on any continent, as long as a case can be made.

Witnesses abound. Evidence is gathered daily. Only the will to punish is lacking.

William Lacy Swing is the director general of the International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental body that has been aiding, monitoring and resettling the world’s migrants since 1951.


Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion and Facebook