BOATLOADS of migrants attempting to cross the central Mediterranean in decrepit and unseaworthy boats and often drowning in the process has made shocking headline news. In October 2014 the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) reported that 165,000 migrants had attempted to cross the central Mediterranean to Europe in the first nine months of the year, compared with 60,000 in 2013. Almost half of migrants crossing in 2014 were from Syria and Eritrea.
Europe has been described as “the world’s most dangerous destination for ‘irregular’ migration,” by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). In 2014 more than 3,000 were estimated to have died or gone missing at sea, compared with just over 600 in 2013 (UNHCR). About 150,000 migrants have been rescued by Italian ships over the 12 months ending in October 2014 (BBC News).
Two Eritreans attending English classes at Coventry Jesus Centre spoke in stark terms about their hazardous journey across North Africa and the Mediterranean:
“It’s a very dangerous journey we make. Men, women, including some who are pregnant, and children attempt it – all mainly aged 18-30. 50% of people die on the way. We know it’s not safe but we try it anyway.
“The desert crossing is very hard. We spent six days in a desert. There’s a network of smugglers and they demand money and sell you like animals. Often there’s infighting between them as they barter to make the most money and sell us to one another. The women are sometimes raped.
“People are fearful, hopeless, desperate. Most boats used for the crossing are not modern. They are overcrowded and not run by professionals. After 18-19 hours at sea the engine stops; there is no steerage. In our case, the Italians rescued us and took us to the island of Lampedusa. Otherwise we would never have got there.
“There’s dictatorship in Eritrea and we have no religious or political freedom, no freedom of speech. We are put in the hands of the military forever as soldiers – it’s modernised slavery. We can’t tolerate the hard conditions; often our lives are at risk. ”
Some have called for co-ordinated action from EU countries to intercept people-traffickers and assess asylum seekers before they reach Europe. In October 2014 the UK government announced it would no longer support any future search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean, claiming they encouraged more migrants to make the dangerous crossing. Similarly, in November 2014, Italy ended its search-and-rescue mission for migrants, called Mare Nostrum, and replaced it with a cheaper rescue service called Triton which is limited to patrolling within 30 miles of the Italian coast.
The result has been catastrophic: in the first six weeks of this year, 373 migrants were confirmed to have died crossing the Mediterranean, a thirty-fold increase on the same period last year (Independent, 23 February, 2015).
Maurice Wren, Chief Executive of the British Refugee Council said, “The British government seems oblivious to the fact that the world is in the grip of the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War.
“People fleeing atrocities will not stop coming if we stop throwing them life-rings; boarding a rickety boat in Libya will remain a seemingly rational decision if you’re running for your life and your country is in flames. The only outcome of withdrawing help will be to witness more people needlessly and shamefully dying on Europe’s doorstep.”
Is there an answer to this large-scale human tragedy of thousands dying on the way to Europe as they attempt to escape a brutal regime?
The UN Refugee Agency has reported: “There is a need to boost education and livelihood opportunities for the refugees in the countries neighbouring Eritrea to prevent people moving on simply out of desperation. At the same time, we also call on Europe to step up efforts to provide credible legal alternatives to dangerous voyages, to protect people from the risks of travelling with smugglers. The collective response needs to maintain a strong capacity to rescue people at sea and increase safer ways for refugees to find safety, including enhanced resettlement, other forms of humanitarian admission and private sponsorship schemes. UNHCR is calling on European governments to do more to facilitate family reunification and use programmes such as student or employment visas to benefit refugees.”