2 min
View of the evacuation of three survivors, two men and a woman, who were rescued by a Search and Rescue Service (SAR) helicopter in the Canary Islands from a drifting skiff with 17 bodies on board almost 500 kilometres south of El Hierro

It is worrying how we come to normalize the pain of others, how we become thick-skinned, how we assume our comfortable impotence. According to the NGO led by activist Helena Maleno, Caminando Fronteras, this year that we have left behind us we also left behind the lives of 4,400 people who tried to enter Europe through the Spanish borders. Twelve lives cut short every day. Lives of human beings who were only looking for an opportunity far from the misery of their homeland and who, in the final stretch, embarked on a precarious boat, drowned in most cases without receiving help and often in anonymity. We have become accustomed to this terrifying humanitarian drama as if we could do nothing about it, as if it were alien to us, as if it were a distant fatalism. And none of the three things is true: Europe does nothing because it does not consider it a priority or, even worse, it acts politically with hypocrisy and cynicism; no human life should be alien to us, especially not those of people (including 205 small children) who are defenceless and bear great suffering, and accepting that these things simply happen and that the world is like this only causes them to happen more often.

This is not about having an open-door policy towards refugees without any filter. But what we have ended up having in Europe is a closed-door policy without any hope. We are forcing desperate people to take a risk that results in almost certain death at the hands of human trafficking gangs that make an obscene business out of other people's lives. This cannot be realpolitik: it is one thing to protect legitimate national interests and quite another to allow children, women and men to drown before our eyes. At the beginning of the massive refugee crisis at the outbreak of the Syrian war, Merkel's Germany took the humanitarian lead. But that gesture has gradually been forgotten until we have fallen to the other extreme, with the far right poisoning public opinion and conditioning and degenerating European reception policy.

Now, with the Mediterranean under tight military control, the tragedy has moved to the coasts of the Canary Islands. The work of NGOs like the Catalan Open Arms is very commendable, as is Helena Maleno's keeping count. We are lucky to have this activism. But if their rescue and denunciation work does not serve to raise public awareness and provoke a change in political management, the drama will perpetuate itself or, at best, it will change scenario. The dead will continue. Nobody has a magic wand, but in any case it is not enough to outsource the problem to countries with little or no respect for human rights, such as Turkey or Libya, to fortify maritime and land borders, with minimum of cooperation with migrants' countries of origin. (In recent months we have seen how the rich West has been unable to ensure vaccination against covid in Africa: it is another example of the neglect in addressing global inequalities). The boats of death are a disgrace that has gone on for far too long – how long will we let this infamy weigh on our consciences?