Friday, May 25, 2018
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Seaborne tragedy

Some European Union nations, especially those with Mediterranean coastlines, face an immigration crisis that involves Africans who are desperate to escape political unrest and poor economic prospects in their countries.

For many immigrants, the trip is fraught with peril. This month, an overcrowded boat sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa, killing at least 339 passengers. Last week, another boat capsized, killing at least 30 people while more than 200 were rescued.

The immigrants’ target countries, particularly Italy and France, are less able than in years past to absorb immigrants economically. The countries’ domestic problems make the political climate for immigrants inhospitable.

Right-wing, sometimes racist, elements in France, Greece, and Italy are challenging their governments on the issue. But it is also becoming a serious humanitarian problem, engaging sympathetic elements in EU countries.

The situation in North Africa, given the unrest in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia, has caused a growing number of people to put their lives in the hands of unscrupulous boat owners and operators to try to get across the sea to a better life. In East Africa, turmoil and chronic poverty in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea have increased the number of aspiring immigrants who are willing to take their chances.

European nations are increasing their efforts to patrol the Mediterranean and prevent drownings by intercepting boats that are not seaworthy. Coastal states such as Italy have called for logistical and financial help from other EU nations. These states can accept more immigrants and offering them refuge.

It is also time for governments of the sending states — if they have governments — to improve circumstances in their countries, so that large numbers of their people do not take to the sea to escape life at home.

The United States has faced comparable situations with Cuban and Haitian “boat people,” but the solution is never obvious. This humanitarian problem remains to be addressed, in the Mediterranean and in the Caribbean.

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