On December 22, rescues at sea saved the lives of 49 people, but everybody was busy getting ready for Christmas celebrations. In our rush to buy presents and finalise recipes, the survivors’ ordeal caught little attention.

Now the festive season is over, and the first week of the new year didn’t bring any human or dignified solution for the children, women and men stranded in the Mediterranean Sea. People had to wait 19 days to disembark in a safe place.

After rescues were completed, the health condition of some guests deteriorated. A mother was urgently evacuated to Malta with her baby, who had been delivered in Libya, while an unaccompanied minor from Somalia was taken to Lampedusa to receive medical care.

The 14-year-old, Emran, was onboard the vessel of another NGO and implored his rescuers to call his mother and inform her that he was still alive. Emran said that he had been beaten before departing from Libya.

After the medical emergencies were solved, there was a long and shameful deadlock for both the rescued and their rescuers.

Italy and Malta, as well as the rest of Europe, in opposition to its founding values, left the rescued people adrift without food and water, both of which were thankfully delivered soon after by another humanitarian vessel. No government ensured that people had enough food, clothes and other essential items aboard.

Furthermore, a worsening of the weather conditions and high waves at sea put at stake the safety of the people onboard. But, once again, no solution could be found to overcome the diplomatic standstill among European Member States.

Until January 9, Malta only allowed the two boats to enter its territorial waters to seek shelter from the storm, receive essential supplies and allow a crew turnover. Meanwhile, rescued people were still onboard and looked at the Maltese coastline with a thousand questions pending in their mind…

It is a strange world, this world where people adore a nativity scene but leave people stranded out at sea

Imagine being out at sea, being cold, terrified and exhausted after detention in Libya where ‘unspeakable violence’ occurs. When you are rescued and understand that you will not be returned to the hands of your persecutors, your second life begins, and you wonder how it will be.

To you, Europe is the homeland of human rights, a peaceful place where you can live in dignity, send your kids to school and work to provide for your family. But you aren’t allowed to disembark. You live in a limbo between hope and despair.

Finally, it’s Christmas, but none of those celebrating it in Europe realises that in the end, Christmas is about you. A persecuted family that – after being rejected by everybody – finds shelter in a stable where a very young woman delivers a baby with a donkey and a cow keeping them warm. It is a strange world, this world where people adore a nativity scene but leave people stranded out at sea.

MOAS performed many rescues during its missions along the central Med and the Aegean Sea, and we are well aware of how difficult it is to keep the survivors of hellish journeys onboard for a long time with limited space.

In light of this, we warmly welcome the decision to allow people to land in Malta, but we also call for a long-term sustainable solution to avoid future deadlocks. It is time to eradicate human trafficking and ensure people’s safety, by opening safe and legal routes.

MOAS has repeatedly reiterated the need to provide safe and legal alternatives to fatal and perilous journeys. If people are so desperate to leave their homeland, they will not be discouraged by a wall or wired fence, but will find a new and more dangerous route to seek sanctuary.

The European Union has to implement a human strategy that honours the fundamental human rights of those forced to flee their homeland due to war, persecution and extreme poverty.

We call on European authorities to put an end to the odyssey of every vulnerable human being in search of a safe future and act in compliance with international and humanitarian law. Political interests can’t be given higher priority than people, their dignity and their rights.

Let’s protect people. Let’s start this new year based on the respect of our global, human community.

Regina Catrambone is a co-founder and director of the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, MOAS.  

This is a Times of Malta print opinion piece

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