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2023 Messenia Migrant Boat Disaster: The deadliest Mediterranean shipwreck in years and implications

Maya Khachab


Aerial photo of the migrant boat taken by The Hellenic Coast Guard (HCG) on June 13, 2023


On June 13th, 2023, a maritime vessel carrying approximately 750 refugees and migrants from Syria, Egypt, Pakistan and Palestine encountered a tragic incident resulting in a submersion within Greek territorial waters. The refugees used a hotline to report being in trouble but Greek authorities claimed that they declined various assistance offers. 104 refugees were rescued and brought to safety. The Hellenic authorities apprehended nine Egyptian refugees who survived the incident, and they now await trial because they planned the trip.

This particular vessel represents a fraction of the numerous overcrowded maritime vessels that tragically sink during their long journeys across the Mediterranean Sea. This tragedy sheds light on the broader European migrant crisis, wherein an estimated 2,000 people have lost their lives while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea within the current year. The number of migrants who resettled from non-EU countries to EU Member States was around 17,300 in 2022, down 27% from 2021 but went up 496% from 2020. 63% percent of those relocated were Syrian. Respectively, Afghanistan (180,000) and Iraq (150,000) have recently been the second and third largest sources of refugees to Europe.

Destabilizing conflicts in the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia, (the MEASEA region) have caused an overwhelming number of migrants to be in desperate desire seeking asylum. Most Middle Eastern refugees don't arrive directly in the States but the US still plays a significant role in the refugee crisis. The United States is a prominent weapons supplier, exacerbating power dynamics and exerting influence on regional conflicts, in particular the Iraq War and the Syrian Civil War.

The US military led the 2003 invasion of Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein from power. However, this military intervention created a power vacuum and exacerbated sectarian tensions within Iraq. The occupation and demolition of Iraq prevailed, leading to the growth of extremist groups. Moreover, by training rebel organizations, the United States contributed to the fragmentation of opposition forces during the Syrian Civil War. Then, in 2019, the sudden withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria created a security vacuum, enabling Turkish military operations and a resurgence of extremist groups to contribute to the region's overall instability.

The moral and humanitarian imperative to assist displaced individuals in the Middle East is particularly salient, when their displacement can be attributed to ongoing violence or instability. However, refugees still suffer with strict immigration controls, such as family separation and detention in overcrowded facilities, offshore processing, and controversial policies aimed to deter illegal boat arrivals. These policies disregard the well-being and human rights of asylum seekers and are incredibly harmful towards reaching global human security.

Effectively tackling the issue of displacement and providing assistance to those impacted, a collaborative international approach must be adopted. This entails governments joining together to offer humanitarian aid, safe possibilities for resettlement, and support to refugees and internally displaced individuals. The notion of responsibility-sharing holds significant prominence within international law and agreements, such as the 1951 Refugee Convention and its subsequent 1967 Protocol. The United States has actively engaged in diplomatic initiatives to tackle the underlying factors driving migration, including conflict resolution and assisting countries of origin. This includes denouncing violations of human rights and advocating for respected asylum procedures globally. The relationship between the United States and the European Union (EU) has implications for collaborative efforts on migration matters involving intelligence, rescue efforts, and policies in order to achieve a coordinated response.

In the short term, host countries should assist refugees in crisis in finding safety, grant them asylum and proper documentation, allow them to resettle, and provide them with resources (such as emergency financial aid, housing, meals, etc. ) to help them integrate and rebuild their lives while becoming active members of the society around them. In the long-term, it is necessary to strategically plan for reconstruction in the countries of origin. The U.S. plays an essential role in the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, a collective endeavor to increase stability in areas in Iraq and Syria that were freed from ISIS rule. Providing security assistance in the region helps local security forces to counter extremist threats, which contributes to stability and development with the hope that it will be rebuilt safely for refugees to return home. Host nations providing aid and holding social, economic reform initiatives to struggling, war-stricken nations would reduce the local economic and social factors that cause migrants to resettle, which, in the long term, would alleviate the stress on themselves. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) operates many different programs in the region, providing humanitarian assistance for internally displaced people, and should encourage European nations to provide aid as well. Demonstrating a commitment to international cooperation by promoting international development can strengthen diplomatic relations, global standing, and our national image.

On the 72nd anniversary of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the 2023 Messenia Migrant Boat Disaster reminded the international community of their role in the global refugee crisis. A coordinated response that addresses immediate humanitarian needs, upholds principles of human rights, and plans for reconstruction in countries of origin is urgently needed.

It is without say though that policies implemented to deal with the refugee crisis will change migration policy from within the United States. Expedited asylum processing would be expected as an effect of the US engaging in migrant humanitarian initiatives. The US will expedite processes for migrants trying to arrive legally but may even extend leniency on desperate migrants that have to arrive illegally. The US migration system will look to ban family separation of refugees and to improve detention facility conditions so that they can better meet international right standards, ensure no abusive treatment, meet human rights, and have access to a legal helper to aid them with the process. The US can also outlaw and look for alternatives to large scale detention centers for migrants and implement community based-programs with more humane treatment and rights are respected.


References


Beinart, Peter. “What America Owes Refugees from the Middle East.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 30 Jan. 2017, www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/01/what-america-owes-refugees-from-the-middle-east/514913/.


Cammack, Perry, and Michele Dunne. “Fueling Middle East Conflicts—or Dousing the Flames.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, carnegieendowment.org/publications/77548. Accessed 1 Oct. 2023.


“Europe’s Growing Muslim Population.” Pew Research Center’s Religion & Public Life Project, Pew Research Center, 29 Nov. 2017, www.pewresearch.org/religion/2017/11/29/europes-growing-muslim-population/.


“The Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS - United States Department of State.” U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, 6 July 2021, www.state.gov/the-global-coalition-to-defeat-isis/.


“Middle East.” U.S. Agency for International Development, 28 Mar. 2023, www.usaid.gov/where-we-work/middle-east#:~:text=USAID’s%20priorities%20in%20the%20Middle,Fostering%20inclusive%20development%20and%20reform.


Sheehan, Kathleen. “Changes in the Brussels-Washington Equation May Affect the European Union’s Refugee Resettlement Efforts.” American Foreign Service Association, 2017, afsa.org/migrant-crisis-europe-and-us-eu-relationship#:~:text=To%20date%2C%20the%20United%20States,the%20new%20administration%20is%20uncertain.


“Statistics on Migration to Europe.” European Commission, May 2023, commission.europa.eu/strategy-and-policy/priorities-2019-2024/promoting-our-european-way-life/statistics-migration-europe_en#:~:text=In%202022%2C%20around%2017%2C300%20people,for%2063%25%20of%20people%20resettled.


“Timeline: How the Migrant Boat Tragedy Unfolded off Greece.” Migration News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 17 June 2023, www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/6/16/timeline-how-the-refugee-boat-tragedy-unfolded-off-greece.


“US Troops Start Pullout in Syria as Turkey Prepares Operation.” Turkey-Syria Border News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 7 Oct. 2019, www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/10/7/us-troops-start-pullout-in-syria-as-turkey-prepares-operation.

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