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Kevin ClarkeJune 20, 2023
Kassem Abo Zeed holds up a phone displaying a photo of himself with his wife, Ezra, who is missing after a fishing boat carrying migrants sank off southern Greece, in the southern port city of Kalamata on Thursday, June 15, 2023. Abo Zeed traveled from Hamburg, Germany to try and find his wife and her missing brother, Abdullah Aoun. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)Kassem Abo Zeed holds up a phone displaying a photo of himself with his wife, Ezra, who is missing after a fishing boat carrying migrants sank off southern Greece, in the southern port city of Kalamata on Thursday, June 15, 2023. Abo Zeed traveled from Hamburg, Germany to try and find his wife and her missing brother, Abdullah Aoun. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

It will rank among the worst migrant catastrophes in recent Mediterranean history, second only to the loss of more than 1,000 people after the collision of a smuggling vessel and a freighter off the Libyan coast in April 2015. Two hours after midnight on June 14, an overloaded fishing trawler capsized in international waters near Greece. More than 500 are believed to have perished with the sinking ship, including women and as many as 100 children who had been confined to its hold. Only 104 survivors were pulled from the water that morning—no women or children found among them—and 81 bodies have been recovered so far.

How the boat came to overturn has been disputed; some survivors say the smuggling boat was being towed by the Greek coast guard when it capsized. But Greek officials say the ship was at no point under tow by a Greek vessel, adding that the migrants, hoping to land in Italy, had rebuffed several offers of assistance.

Many of the refugees seeking to land in Europe were from Pakistan, escaping the poverty and political turbulence currently engulfing their homeland.

According to media reports, many of the refugees seeking to land in Europe were from Pakistan, escaping the poverty and political turbulence currently engulfing their homeland, but among the men and youth who survived were also Egyptians, Syrians and Palestinians. Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif on June 18 declared a national day of mourning as the high death toll among Pakistanis became clear. This latest tragedy in the Mediterranean continues years of migrant deaths on the sea as human traffickers move people desperate to escape the Middle East and Africa into Europe.

Pope Francis has frequently called attention to the suffering of migrants on the Mediterranean—in fact, it was among his first official gestures as pope when he celebrated Mass in Lampedusa, a Sicilian port city where many migrants at that time landed. He did so again today, June 20, World Refugee Day, using Twitter to urge nations with the capacity to do so to welcome migrants and asylum seekers. The pope tweeted: “Thinking of Christ present in so many desperate people fleeing conflicts and climate change, the problem of hospitality needs to be confronted together, without excuses and without delay, because the effects will be felt, sooner or later, by all of us.”

“A vast cemetery”
“A vast cemetery”

When news of the disaster first reached him on June 14, the pope dispatched a telegram of condolence to Archbishop Jan Romeo Pawłowski, the apostolic nuncio to Greece, offering prayers “for the many migrants who have died, for their loved ones and for all those traumatised by this tragedy.”

The pope has been deeply critical of the collective European response to the ongoing migration crisis on the Mediterranean, which he grimly predicted in 2014 would become “a vast cemetery” unless European powers did more to respond. Since then, more than 27,000 have died or disappeared attempting the crossing, though advocates say the true toll is much higher.

Pope Francis: “Thinking of Christ present in so many desperate people fleeing conflicts and climate change, the problem of hospitality needs to be confronted together, without excuses and without delay.”

Owing to the length of the overseas journey, increasingly dangerous smuggling patterns, gaps in search-and-rescue capacity and restrictions on the life-saving work of N.G.O.s, the central Mediterranean is the deadliest known migration route in the world, according to the International Organization for Migration. Migrants often cross the central Mediterranean in unseaworthy, overloaded inflatable boats, and many thousands of deaths likely go unrecorded, I.O.M. officials say, since many shipwrecks are “invisible”—boats in distress that disappear with no survivors.

At the end of 2022, according to the United Nations, more than 108 million people worldwide “were forcibly displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations and events seriously disturbing public order.” The figure represents an increase of almost 20 million people over 2021. Refugee totals for 2023 are expected to rise by as much as 2 million with more suffering and migration fueled by conflict in Ethiopia and Sudan.

Nine Egyptian men suspected of crewing the smuggling ship appeared in court in Greece on June 20, as new accounts emerged of the sinking and the appalling conditions on the trip from Libya toward Italy. Survivors said that each traveler seeking a better life in Europe paid as much as $4,000 for a berth on the battered blue fishing trawler. In sworn testimonies provided over the weekend and seen by The Associated Press, they described shocking conditions on the five-day journey. Most of the passengers were denied food and water, and those who could not bribe the crew to get out of the hold were beaten if they tried to reach deck level.

The disaster means that 2023 is on pace to be among the most fatal in recent years for refugees and migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean from the Middle East and North Africa. In 2022, nearly 3,800 people died on migration routes within and from the M.E.N.A. region, the highest number since 2017, when 4,255 deaths were recorded, according to data from the I.O.M.’s Missing Migrants Project.

At the end of 2022, more than 108 million people worldwide “were forcibly displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations and events seriously disturbing public order.”

The region accounted for more than half the total 6,877 migrant deaths recorded worldwide in 2022. More than 1,400 migrant deaths were reported in the Americas in 2022, most in efforts to reach the United States.

Each June, the Norwegian Refugee Council releases its findings on the world’s most neglected displacement crises—some of them reflect people internally displaced within the borders of their home countries, not refugees, people who cross borders to escape conflict or natural and man-made disasters. This year, as in the past, the list is dominated by nations in Africa and Latin America. The N.R.C. uses three criteria for classification as a neglected crisis: lack of humanitarian funding, lack of media attention and a lack of international political and diplomatic initiatives in response.

“Neglect is a choice—that millions of displaced people are cast aside year after year without the support and resources they so desperately need is not inevitable,” said Jan Egeland, N.R.C.’s secretary general, in a statement released with the report. According to the N.R.C., over the past two years the redirection of aid because of heightened attention to Ukraine’s refugee and material crisis has worsened the neglect of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

The top 10 list in 2023 includes older but continuing migration crises, like those in Colombia, Venezuela and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the displaced population has experienced years of disruption, but at the top of the list is a new humanitarian disaster emerging in Burkina Faso. Accelerating conflict in that West African nation last year displaced 2 million people.

“The powerful response to the suffering inflicted by the war in Ukraine demonstrated what the world can deliver for people in need,” Mr. Egeland said. “Political action for Ukrainians has been impactful and swift, borders kept open, funding plenty, and media coverage extensive. Those in power need to show the same humanity towards people affected by crises in places such as Burkina Faso and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.”

With reporting from The Associated Press

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