When you ask why Europe seems to be responding so callously to the migrants who regularly drown trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea — perhaps 600 or more died this weekend alone, when a migrant boat foundered and sank off the Italian coast — the answer that comes back is that to many Europeans, these are just economic migrants hoping to game European immigration and welfare systems.
What European leaders do not seem to see are the children among these migrants. Kids, even infants, are a common presence on the boats floating north toward Europe. Wire services are full of photos of tiny faces peering over the sides of lifeboats, or being carried by rescue workers who have saved them from the sea.
One of the migrants rescued from this weekend's disaster said there had been dozens of children on the boat. None were among the 28 survivors.
Not just economic migrants, but desperate families and vulnerable children
It is heartbreaking to see those children in danger, and to think about the many others who may have been lost before rescuers could reach them.
There is a political narrative in many European countries that these boats are full of greedy migrants coming to raid public welfare programs and steal jobs. In fact, in many cases the boats are carrying families who are so desperate to escape persecution and war that they are even willing to risk their children's lives to have the chance of reaching safety. Imagine how desperate those parents must be, and how dire their situations in their home countries, to make this choice.
Harsh European policies intended to discourage migration, such as the termination of the successful Mare Nostrum rescue operations in the Mediterranean, won't deter that kind of immigration. They'll just leave the most vulnerable migrants — including young children — without help when disaster strikes.
Families would not risk their children's lives on the most dangerous border crossing in the world if they had other options. Many of these children have no choice about whether to board these boats. Ending rescue efforts won't deter them. It will just leave more children to die.
Children on a perilous journey
The nature of migrant smuggling makes it difficult to say precisely how many children are being endangered by the perilous crossing from Africa to Europe, but there is no doubt that the problem is severe. And it is frequent. Another migrant boat sank on April 15; some 400 people, including many children, are believed to have died.
The Mediterranean is now the most dangerous border crossing in the world: experts estimate that last year 4,868 people died trying to get to Europe, and 1,600 have already died this year. Although we do not know precisely how many of those were children, the reliable presence of children on board rescued ships offers a chilling suggestion that there probably were — and will continue to be — many.
Some children make the journey alone, without even one parent to protect or care for them. The nonprofit Save the Children, which provides services to rescued migrant children in Italy, estimates that nearly 6 percent of the undocumented immigrants who arrived in Europe this year were unaccompanied children traveling without a parent or guardian.
"Some of the minors from West Africa — Malians and Nigerians, particularly — are escaping from conflict or persecution," Carlotta Bellini, Save the Children Italia’s head of protection, told the Guardian. "I spoke to a boy recently who said, ‘My mother was killed some time back. And then, a month ago, they killed my father.’ It was because they were Christians."
Others have survived horrifying violence on their journey. One 17-year-old Eritrean boy told Save the Children that he had witnessed people being beheaded and burned alive in Libya. Smugglers held him prisoner in a sardine factory and beat him with iron bars.
"They made you call home, saying you were dying," he said. "And in the meantime they beat you up so that your family could hear the screams."
Harsh migration policies will leave children in danger
European voters are increasingly pressuring their governments to enact hasher policies to deter unauthorized migration.
Last fall, for instance, the UK cut funding for the Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue operations that saved an estimated 150,000 people in one year, saying the rescues encouraged more people to make the crossing. The Italian government ended the operation in November. Since then it has been replaced by the EU's far more limited Frontex program, which only patrols within 30 miles of the border, and does not have a search-and-rescue mission.
That response might play well politically, but it is unlikely to stem the flow of desperate people across the water. Migrants are already aware that the journey is dangerous. They know that they and their children might not survive. The Guardian reports that one of the first things unaccompanied children want to do when they reach Lampedusa, an Italian island where migrant boats tend to beach, is post a selfie to Facebook — not for fun, but to reassure their terrified families that they didn't die in the water.