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Mediterranean’s “Deadliest Weekend” Started in Egypt

September 17, 2014

Over the weekend, as many as 700 human beings died at sea in the Mediterranean, trying desperately to reach Europe, including 500 on a boat that departed from Egypt. A UNHCR spokesperson quoted in The Guardian called it “without any doubt the deadliest weekend ever in the Mediterranean.”

The weekend death toll may have equaled the entire tally for 2013, when 700 migrants died trying to reach Europe all year. Nine months into this year, the toll has already reached about 2900.

This awful, pointless tally of the dead stands first and foremost as an indictment of the supposedly civilized democracies that have turned themselves into fortresses, walled off against the arrival of unarmed, hopeful people who are underserving mainly because they made the bad choice to be born with a less advantageous citizenship. These deaths were in the Eastern Mediterranean, but they just as easily could have been in Texas or off the coast of Australia. In the interest of human civilization, one has to hope that our grandchildren will look back on these human losses and shake their heads in shame at the callousness of their ancestors.

As a secondary matter, it is relevant to note that Egypt has long been one of UNHCR’s largest refugee status determination operations (it was the fourth largest in 2013). The boat from Egypt included a mix of Sudanese, Syrians, Palestinians and other nationalities, along with some Egyptians. It’s reasonable to speculate that a good many of them were refugees, and some may even have been applying to or already recognized as refugees by UNHCR-Cairo. That’s hardly surprising. Refugees and asylum-seekers in Egypt have been smuggling themselves to Europe and Israel for years, some without trying to seek refuge in Cairo, and some after despairing of their prospects there.

The existence of a UNHCR RSD operation provides a measure of bureaucratic order to refugee policy in countries like Egypt. It means it is possible to inquire about a person’s status — asylum-seeker, refugee, rejected asylum-seeker, etc. It means there is paperwork and some documentation, and an office with people trying to make things better. But it does not mean that there is real protection available whatever paperwork one manages to get. And that is why refugees who have already escaped from other places take such risks to move again, in a doomed search for asylum that so few actually find.

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