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ILS expresses concern at refugee drowning deaths

Three tragic maritime incidents in the past 3 months have highlighted the risks that refugee and asylum seekers take when fleeing persecution or violence, and the extreme hazards that are faced when that flight involves water transportation.

The three notable incidents include;

  1. Approximately 40 Ethiopians and Somalis who drowned when their boat sunk in heavy seas January 3 on route to Yemen;
  2. A second boat that was reporting missing in the same waters with conflicting reports showing a further 40 drowning victims;
  3. Approximately 42 Iranians and Iraqi Kurds drowned when their boat sank on rocks in heavy seas off Christmas Island, an Australian Territory often used by refugees due to its close proximity to Indonesia. Rescue efforts included a naval response and local people throwing PFD's and using ropes in attempts to drag people out of the water and up to safe on the rocks.

Hot spots for refugee maritime disasters include Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Indian Ocean from Sri Lanka across to Indonesia and the top-end of Australia.

Thousands of people attempt the treacherous journey from Africa across the Gulf of Aden to Yemen every year. Yemen is seen as a gateway to a better life for Africans fleeing civil war, political instability, poverty, famine and drought in the Middle East or Europe however people smugglers often crowd migrants into old and unseaworthy vessels whilst.

In 2007 the issue prompted the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and the International Maritime Organisation to call for more action to prevent this humanitarian tragedy. At the time Erika Feller, UNHCR's top protection official stated "There's a very mixed flow of people â€" refugees and asylum seekers fleeing violence and persecution, as well as migrants seeking a better life â€" risking their lives on unseaworthy vessels often operated by ruthless smuggling rings that care nothing for human life".

The IMO, the United Nations specialized agency with responsibility for the safety and security of shipping and the prevention of marine pollution by ships, provided specific advice to shipping operators regarding the rescue of refugees on stricken vessels.

Refugee and drowning incidents is not restricted to open waters and vessels of questionably seaworthiness, with many incidents occurring in rivers with refugee attempting to swim or raft to safety particularly in trouble spots in equatorial Africa, along the US Mexican Border and in parts of Central America. It is clear that this issue requires further investigation, and estimating how many people drown in these incidents is a good starting point.

According to an opinion piece published by two Australian researchers, Dr. Leanne Weber and Professor Sharon Pickering, in an Australian Newspaper, drowning accounts for well over half the deaths of refugees and asylum seekers recorded by European non-government organisations. They cite reports from European NGO's who estimate that nearly 14000 men, women and children are known to have died from 1993 to 2010 trying to enter Europe, during detention or forcible deportation.

Each and every refugee drowning death should be a call to action to the international drowning prevention and lifesaving community. These cases highlight drowning prevention themes including swimming and lifesaving education, maritime safety and steps to be taken by governments to reduce risk in aquatic environments known to be route for refugees.

Justin Scarr, ILS Drowning Prevention Commissioner
Amy Peden, Senior Project Officer, Royal Life Saving Society - Australia