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Migrants Are Drowning as They Flee War and Poverty; Will Europe Continue Its Sea Rescues?

Mass migration to Europe, resulting from war and poverty, has erupted into a full-blown humanitarian crisis.

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

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As European officials squabble over monetary policy and football scandals, the ghosts of war and imperialism haunt the continent’s jagged maritime border.

This year, the Mediterranean has swallowed more than 1,800 souls. Many took their last gasps while clinging to ramshackle boats a few miles off the shores of Libya, just short of the salvation they sought in Europe. Migrants are fleeing violence, war and epidemic poverty across the Middle East and Africa, from the Syrian battlefields to Eritrea’s autocratic regime – and now the mass migration itself has erupted into a full-blown humanitarian crisis on the West’s doorstep.

“People keep coming, and it’s important that resources to save them remain out there.”

In a single shipwreck in April, about 800 migrants died, splashing images across the media worldwide of desperate survivors clustered on the Italian shore. European Union ministers were shamed into hastily boosting funding for Mediterranean rescue operations – one step toward compensating for the consequences of their controversial decision to shut down search-and-rescue operations months earlier.

But while this temporary expansion of aid appears to have led to a sharp drop in the migrant death rate, it’s unclear whether these minimal efforts will be maintained.

Elisa De Pieri, Amnesty International’s Italy researcher, said neither the mass migrations nor the related hazards show any sign of abating. “We are seeing hundreds and thousands of people at a time, coming on, all the time,” she said. “People keep coming, and it’s important that resources to save them remain out there.”

For many, the tip of Italy’s coastline is the last stop in a harrowing itinerary across Africa and through some of the world’s worst combat zones. Mamadou, 28, was rescued a year ago from a boat off the coast of Italy after escaping Libya. His journey began when he fled political troubles in his home country, Gambia. Like countless other fellow African migrants, he then made multiple, increasingly desperate moves across the region on the way to Europe. He initially hoped to work for a while in Libya after being targeted for violence due to political conflict, he said. He did odd household jobs for a while. But soon the outbreak of civil war – sparked in part by the NATO-led ouster of the Qaddafi regime – intersected with an undercurrent of anti-Black racism in Libyan society, and exploded into widespread attacks on migrant workers.

“Libyan people, they treat Black people like slaves,” he says, recounting the exploitation he and other Black laborers suffered. “They don’t give you a single cent; they don’t give you nothing.” As conflict encircled them, migrants became easy targets for armed groups. Mamadou says they were bandits in civilian clothing who assaulted and robbed African migrants. He packed onto a rickety boat in June 2014 with scores of others and nearly drowned before being rescued by an aid mission. Today, he lives in the sprawling Mineo migrant center in rural Sicily, which is known for shoddy conditions and links to trafficking networks. Along with about 3,200 other migrants, he is awaiting an asylum hearing.

As European officials debate migration policy in terms of state “security,” they often portray the teeming migrant facilities and makeshift encampments dotting the streets of European cities as a problem dumped on the continent from “over there.” But the stream of migrant bodies attests to global social crises that are directly linked to the economic and military policies of the West. Of the 137,000 migrants who crossed the Mediterranean in the first half of 2015, a third are escaping war in Syria. Thousands of refugees have also fled to Europe from Afghanistan and Iraq. They have endured intense trauma in war zones or at the hands of abusive traffickers; many women report being sexually assaulted.

A Deadly Journey

Migration levels appear to be rising overall while the risks of the journey escalate, with well over 200,000 crossings in 2014 – about a tenfold increase from 2012.

The Mediterranean is one of several entry points into Europe. Tens of thousands have come by land through other “frontline” countries such as Greece. Since border states are often relatively poor themselves, most migrants try to move on to wealthier countries like Germany, Sweden or Britain. But under EU law, migrants seeking asylum are generally supposed to remain in the first EU country they enter. Many become stuck in legal purgatory in a border state, navigating a chaotic immigration bureaucracy known for arbitrary and inhumane treatment. Some will eventually obtain asylum. The many who are rejected may go underground and seek unauthorized work. Activists say that a more rational policy would allow people to apply for visas before they make the treacherous journey; the current system simply encourages people to risk death in transit and suffering in detention.

“I knew that the journey would be very dangerous and difficult, especially for my daughter. But what was the alternative?”

Many families are split before even reaching Europe. Agnes fled with her husband from Eritrea’s conscription system, which is known for pressing youth into draconian military service, and spent three years in Sudan trying to scrape up the money to get to Europe. Unable to afford the journey, her husband stayed behind while Agnes and their toddler daughter traveled to Tripoli by car, packed with other migrants “like animals,” she later recalled in a testimony for Doctors Without Borders, “beaten with bare hands, with sticks, with guns.”

After spending months detained in a squalid house with 600 or 700 other migrants, “being beaten every day,” she finally paid her captors $1,700 to secure passage across the Mediterranean on a hot, suffocating boat, and was rescued by humanitarian aid workers. “I knew that the journey would be very dangerous and difficult, especially for my daughter,” she stated. “But what was the alternative? We could not survive in Eritrea or Sudan.”

Another young Eritrean, Freshgy, similarly journeyed through Sudan and then Libya by truck. He recalled seeing fellow migrants get “left to die in the desert” along the way, being robbed and held captive in a packed compound, where migrants languished in suffocating squalor and women were raped. Eventually his family paid ransom so he could board a doomed boat with about 550 others.

After he was rescued in Italy, Freshgy testified, “I have many friends and relatives who came to Europe before me. I knew how dangerous the travel is – they had told me on Facebook and Messenger. But I had no choice. In Sudan there is no peace. In Ethiopia there is no peace. In Libya there is no government … this is the only choice we have: to cross the sea by the help of god.”

Migrants keep finding their way to shore, dead or alive. Some smugglers, who run sophisticated, lucrative trafficking networks across the region, are reportedly abandoning vessels at sea, leaving their human cargo to the mercy of passing ships. Now many arrive on small rubber dinghies – presumably easier to obtain than the usual wooden fishing vessels.

European Search-and-Rescue Missions

Under public pressure, EU authorities have expanded the maritime patrols into more active search-and-rescue missions, rather than leaving migrants’ fate to chance. Since European maritime authorities and private aid groups have intensified their efforts, there have been only 99 deaths from late April through late June. The number of migrants coming to Europe has simultaneously risen sharply, from fewer than 28,000 from January to April, to over 42,000 between May and June, according to Amnesty.

European authorities now confront the more complex ethical and logistical challenge of resettling survivors across different countries. So far, officials have only agreed to relocate 40,000 people, plus another 22,000 new refugee resettlements – a sliver of the total population in need, particularly long-term refugees like Syrians fleeing civil war.

“The smugglers are exploiting a situation that has been in part created by the policies that the European governments have taken.”

Meanwhile, amid high unemployment and tightened welfare budgets, populist xenophobic undercurrents are rising across the continent, especially in countries like France, where right-wing, anti-Muslim nationalist movements are gaining momentum. European leaders have vowed to get “tough” on migration by filtering out so-called “economic migrants” and distinguishing them from those with “genuine” asylum claims (a murky rhetorical distinction that elevates fleeing war and persecution over fleeing crushing poverty). Officials have even weighed deploying military interventions off Libya’s coast, to supposedly stop smugglers at the source – a proposal activists criticize as both ineffective and cruel.

In De Pieri’s view, officials should acknowledge that “the smugglers are exploiting a situation that has been in part created by the policies that the European governments have taken in the past years, effectively sealing off the land borders and refusing to offer considerable amounts of resettlement and humanitarian places in Europe – so that people have effectively been channeled toward the sea route.”

And the borders grow tighter by the day. In recent years, immigration authorities in Greece and Hungary have further militarized enforcement efforts, ramping up security patrols or erecting more border fencing. But rather than deterring migration, these trends simply drive people to try to enter Europe by boat, leading to more hazardous passages across the continent.

Untold numbers of men, women and children perish before they even approach Europe. According to Flavio Di Giacomo, a spokesperson for the International Organization for Migration, “the sea crossing is only the last leg of a much lengthier journey which often requires an arduous crossing of the Sahara, where many die unremarked.” Statistically, most people displaced by social or economic disaster tend to stay within their regions. Europe’s migrants represent just the outer edge of a phalanx of desperation spanning the global South.

Grassroots Pressure for Migrant Justice

Frustrated by their governments’ passive response, however, grassroots activists have organized in solidarity with migrants, raising a human rights challenge to what they see as Europe’s dereliction of global social responsibility. Advocates have provided direct aid and social support to camps of migrants stranded at the French Port of Calais. Others press for policy reforms with campaigns to raise awareness of the underlying drivers of the crisis, including conflict, oppression and dysfunctional asylum and detention systems, widely decried for abusive and unjust treatment of migrants.

Following the April mass drowning incident, activists from Brighton to Brussels organized staged mourning protests – demonstrations of public outrage to pressure EU officials to address the Mediterranean deaths.

Presenting the chilling image of ceremonial body bags on a sandy beach, Amnesty UK director Kate Allen proclaimed to “Fortress Europe”: “The equivalent of five passenger planes full of people have drowned last week alone, and this is only the start of the summer. If they had been holiday makers, instead of migrants, imagine the response.”

“You have to leave to save your life.”

For now, Europe’s migrants are suspended between rising desperation abroad and sinking hope on strange shores. While European leaders try to differentiate proper asylum seekers from other desperate sojourners, migrants themselves don’t distinguish between forced and “economic” migration. In the midst of war and mass deprivation, the only option is to keep moving, with fleeting faith that they’ll eventually reach safety.

“You have to leave to save your life,” Mamadou said. “You have no [other] choice, because your life is left up to you. You take it.”

Today, about a year since he was plucked from the Mediterranean waters, Mamadou waits patiently for his hearing. He has picked up a little Italian, he said, and plans eventually to find work in Europe.

But he is alone and does not know when it will be safe to return to Gambia, where family and community remain. “I hope to see them again,” he said. “I hope that our government will go out very soon.” Asked about his prospects for asylum, he responded quickly, almost reflexively: “Yeah, I’m hopeful.”

At this point, what else could he say?

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