Besieged by civil war, poverty and violent repression, huge numbers of people are risking their lives to make the hazardous journey from Tripoli or Benghazi across the Mediterranean to Italy. Crammed into unsafe, poorly maintained vessels, thousands of vulnerable men, women and children are leaving their homes in search of peace, freedom and opportunity. They come from countries in turmoil: Syria, Eritrea and Ethiopia, Somalia and Libya, among others. They have lost hope that life will become peaceful and just in their homeland and see no alternative but to pack a bag with their past and set off into the unknown. They are scared to leave and terrified to stay.
There is no functioning state in Libya; armed militia patrol the streets and Islamic State or Da’ish is an increasing presence in the country. Around half a million people wait in Tripoli for a boat to Europe. Nationless and undocumented, they are vulnerable to a range of dangers in various uniforms. Sekou Balde from Senegal told The Telegraph, “he was stabbed six times, by a gang of four Libyan soldiers who demanded money after they raided the house near Tripoli. ‘My brother was shot dead in front of me – boom, boom – as well as two of my friends,’ he said.”
Thousands of people arriving in Italy are held in “migrant detention centers,” run by the Department for Combating Illegal Migration. Between 1,000 and 6,000 migrants are kept in each of the 19 centers, where violent abuse and mistreatment is routine. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that, in these prison-like places, guards “have tortured and otherwise abused migrants and asylum seekers, including with severe whippings, beatings, and electric shocks.” Bribes of anything up to $1,000 for release are commonplace.
The journey to a new, peaceful life is protracted and unmapped, with no guarantee of safely arriving on Europe’s shores, let alone being welcomed. Over the weekend of the February 14, 2,600 people were rescued in the Mediterranean off the Italian island of Lampedusa, near where 360 people had died in October 2014. The crossing is said to be the most dangerous in the world: More than 3,200 people died making the journey in 2014.
Criminal gangs are the agents for the voyage: They provide no travel itinerary or travel insurance; there are no swanky departure lounges, cafés and friendly cabin crew, just criminal gangs who charge a fortune and will beat and abuse anyone who challenges them. The costs are astronomical – averaging between $5,000 and $10,000 – the routes many and varied. They walk, these frightened men, women and children, often for miles, often barefoot or in plastic sandals, and sleep on the streets or in the bush. They travel from country to country – unwanted, intimidated and exploited, risking rape, abuse and death. Frightening, dangerous and insecure, every step is perilous, and every day is pregnant with uncertainty.
After months of grinding hardship following on from years of struggle, homelessness, imprisonment, repression and fear – a boat manned by thugs, a worn out vessel for the drained and degraded. No space to breathe, to rest – no food – even no water. The children cry and are cold and scared; the sea is rough and unforgiving; the dark, suffocating.
The risks, however great, are no deterrent to those seeking to escape conflict, suppression and hardship. In Syria, where civil war still rages, and Libya, which is on the verge of imploding, the risks are greater than anything the Mediterranean has to offer. In 2014, 24,000 people journeyed from Syria to Italy, and 29,000 left Libya for Europe. So too in Eritrea, where a lifetime of forced military service for both men and women, poverty, arbitrary detention, torture and repression have driven over 200,000 – more than 3 percent of the population – to flee the country in the past decade. And then there’s Somalia, still in the grip of a civil war that kills civilians, where soldiers rape and abuse women, and almost half the population lives under the shadow of suffocating poverty. And Egypt – another military dictatorship – is suffering the most serious human rights crisis in its history, according to HRW.
Is it any wonder, then, that so many are trying to find sanctuary and refuge in Europe?
Prejudice and Indifference
The men, women and children making, what are by all standards, nightmare journeys, are not responsible for the poisonous environment that they have been forced to live in. They are innocent people, who are simply trying to find a peaceful place they can live, prosper and bring up their families. In so doing, they are being exploited and mistreated by criminal traffickers, police and bandits alike.
Leaving the familiarity of home, these desperate people are generically called “migrants” – a charged term filled with all manner of hate and prejudice: It denies the individual and tarnishes everyone with the brush of appropriation, and the sour stench of suspicion. It is a lazy label of intolerance, which fosters abuse and mistreatment. The migrant is “the other,” the one who wants to take something from us, who will exploit our social systems, pollute or dilute our culture, soil our communities and threaten the safety and sanctity of Western democracy. These strangers at our door have become a series of inconvenient statistics for Western politicians to hurl at one another, and an excuse for right-wing extremism.
Compassion, tolerance and understanding – not hate, intolerance and paranoia – need to flow unreservedly toward the needy and fragile, the human beings fleeing violent conflict or brutal repressive regimes, who face darkness and terror as they journey from home to Europe. As Pope Francis cried out on the shores of the Mediterranean, “In this world of globalization we have fallen into a globalization of indifference. Forgive us our indifference towards so many brothers and sisters.”