Last week, around 60 migrants died when the vessel transporting them from Italy to Libya sank in the Mediterranean Sea. Most of them were Bangladeshis. The small boat was overloaded, and sank about 10 minutes after the migrants were transferred to it from a larger boat. According to Red Crescent officials, the survivors had spent eight hours trapped in the cold sea before being spotted by fishermen who alerted the Tunisian coastguards. Rescue operations have been severely affected by the Italian government’s policy which restricts rescued migrants to enter the country. This incident is one of the many of its kind, as the route is one of the deadliest ones of transporting migrants.
Every year, many Bangladeshis move abroad in search for better financial opportunities at a great cost- both economic and personal. A huge portion of them are undocumented and uneducated workers who have to resort to a corrupt and unreliable system. Unauthorised migrant workers usually cannot access rights under destination country’s labour laws. However, regardless of their classification made by the destination country, they do come under the overarching auspices of international human rights law.
As per the United Nations General Assembly Resolution 217, the rights enshrined in the UN Declaration of Human Rights extend to all migrant workers despite their legal status in a given country. Migrants are entitled to right to life and cannot arbitrarily be deprived of it. States have a positive duty to protect migrants from loss of life while travelling by land or sea within its jurisdiction. This has been iterated in the UN General Assembly, Resolution 23/20. Moreover, shipmasters are bound under the UN Convention on Law of the Sea to provide assistance to any person found at sea who is in danger of being lost and to rescue persons in distress if informed of their need for assistance. Such assistance must be provided regardless of their nationalities, statuses, or the circumstances which they are found to be in, as per the International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue.
Despite the existence of these international safeguards, the incidents of death and disappearance of migrants in sea channels is a persistent phenomenon. Unless the concerned States come together to build a system that is sensitive to the socio-economic realities of the vulnerable migrant workers, such incidents cannot be prevented. Sending and receiving States of migrant workers need to work together to lay out the terms of employment and must ensure a reliable support system for the workers.