Surviving the Mediterranean Sea Amid European Refugee Crisis

Emmanuel Freedom is a refugee. He’s 22 years old and has been living in Malta for the last 18 months. As night falls on the island, he heaves a sigh of relief. He considers every day to be a victory, a promise for a brighter tomorrow.

Although he looks far older than his years, his facial expression is soft, even fragile. He is constantly wary of his surroundings, but he smiles often with a faraway look in his eyes. An undocumented worker, he usually finds employment as a day laborer, working odd jobs in construction, painting or repairs.

Shy at first, Freedom slowly recounts his story. He talks of fleeing persecution in his hometown back in Nigeria and of the dangers that he encountered on the journey to Europe. It’s a unique story, but also one that exemplifies a shared resilience amid untold suffering.

As a refugee in Malta, Freedom belongs to a wider group of men, women and children. His story represents this community, one that has grown accustomed to living under the shadow of anonymity.

Holding on for “Dear Life”

At the age of 18, Freedom fled his native Nigeria and traveled to Libya. When asked about his reasons for doing so, he responds, “I left Nigeria because it isn’t safe. The country is starving and our government is corrupt. There is a lot of tension between the Muslim majority and the Christian minority. I am a Christian, and I feel that my community is in danger. We’re afraid. We don’t even feel safe going to church.”

After a thoughtful pause, he continues, “I was dating a Muslim girl. She got pregnant and delivered a baby, a beautiful baby girl. I wanted to marry, but her family could not accept me. They sent a gang of thugs to look for me. They intended to kill me. If I’d stayed, I wouldn’t have been alive today.”

After an uneasy road journey lasting more than five days, Freedom arrived in Libya. Unfortunately, as he realized soon after, his troubles were only just beginning.

“I expected to settle down in Libya, and everything was going fine initially. However, the violence in the region was unimaginable. Armed militias were running wild, killing people in the streets. A close friend of mine disappeared one day. It was very dangerous,” he says with consternation.

As it turned out, Freedom’s Libyan employer and benefactor came to the rescue — booking passage for him on a boat bound for Italy. The perilous sea voyage did not fare well and, after a night’s journey, the boat capsized in the midst of the Mediterranean Sea.

“Before I even realized, we were drowning. I managed to grab onto a piece of plywood. It was an unbearable effort to hold onto it; I held on for dear life. I was able to stay afloat in spite of the strong winds and crushing waves. It took nine hours for a rescue ship to arrive. I’m lucky that I survived, and I’m thankful to God,” recollects Freedom.

On that fateful day, he was among only 12 survivors out of a total 121 passengers on board. He continues, “When they finally lifted me up onto the rescue ship, all I could see were dead bodies. That’s all I could see.”

Freedom and the other survivors were ferried to Reggio Calabria, a port city in Southern Italy. Thereafter, he was made to register at a refugee camp. Although originally intended as a temporary arrangement, Freedom stayed at the camp for well over two years.

“The situation in Italy was bad, very bad. The food was inedible, and I would fall ill every time I ate it. They refused to give us the necessary documentation in order to find employment. As a result, we had to work as undocumented laborers. I worked for anyone who was willing to hire me. It was mostly manual labor — woodwork, painting and the like. However, the police came one day and, after that, everyone was scared. They stopped hiring us,” he explains.

It soon became only too clear to Freedom that even though he had found his way to Europe, his troubles were far from over. While he’d left his native Nigeria in search of a better life, his refuge in Europe was marred by a host of difficulties, including discrimination. “When I first arrived in Europe, I understood the meaning of racism,” he laments.

Frustrated by his grave circumstances, Freedom resolved to move on from Italy. An avid footballer, he dreamt of making his way to Germany or France. However, he was unable to arrange the requisite funds or official documents that were necessary to travel to mainland Europe. So, he decided to relocate from Italy to the nearby island of Malta instead.

Although small in size, Malta is both economically prosperous and strategically located. An independent island state comprised of an archipelago, Malta rests across the southernmost tip of Sicily. A short distance from Tripoli and Tunis, it overlooks the northern strip of Africa. Given this particular geography, Malta has been at the forefront of Europe’s tussle with the arrival of refugees.

“Refugees and asylum seekers have been coming to Malta for a number of years now,” says Kahin Ismail, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) representative to Malta. “Since the advent of the boat arrivals from North Africa back in the early 2000s, we’ve witnessed a direct and targeted migration to Malta. Initially, migrants rescued at sea were taken to Italy. This is no longer the case and, for the time being, there is no agreement on this issue.”

According to the UNHCR, Malta witnessed a record number of 1,445 sea arrivals in 2018, and the nationalities granted international protection were most notably Libyan, Syrian, Eritrean, Somali and Ethiopian. The data indicate that despite its relatively small size, Malta is witnessing a growing influx of migrants. On the other hand, a large proportion of asylum seekers consider Malta to be a point of transition to a life on mainland Europe.

“The vast majority of refugees want to move on from Malta and are quite frustrated that they are unable to do so. Many want to move on to other countries in order to connect with larger groups of their own communities,” said Neil Falzon, director of Aditus, a non-governmental organization (NGO) focused on human rights in Malta. “Some are eager to relocate to an environment that has greater employment opportunities. And for others, they hope to settle in a place less exposed to the negative discourse of racism.”

Emmanuel Freedom outside his shared accommodation in Hamrun, Malta.
Emmanuel Freedom outside his shared accommodation in Hamrun, Malta.

Far Right Exploits Fear

Since Malta is at the southerly border of the European Union (EU), it is a first point of entry for many migrants seeking refuge or settlement in Europe.

Similar to other countries within the EU, there has been a great deal of public debate about the refugee crisis in Malta. A number of NGOs, following the example of the UNHCR, have been spearheading a campaign for policy formation and reform directed toward assisting asylum seekers.

Meanwhile, several nationalist groups have sprung up in retaliation, advocating for stricter measures and a protectionist policy toward immigration.

Dominik Kalweit, director of the NGO Kopin, says that in Malta, as in other countries, immigration policy is often short term and focused on the next round of elections.

“Therefore, long-term approaches to migration policy do not take into account the critical concepts of inclusion and integration,” Kalweit says. “Fears are exploited too often, and I do think that the outcome is very dangerous. The far right has been gaining a lot of ground here in Malta. These groups espouse an ideology based on misinformation and fear mongering. For instance, whenever the Moviment Patrijotti Maltin organizes a protest, huge numbers come out in support.”

The Moviment Patrijotti Maltin, founded in 2016, is a nationalist, ultra-right and anti-immigration political party based in Malta. The media outreach for the Moviment Patrijotti Maltin did not respond to Truthout’s request for comment.

Conflict, strife and civil war have fueled the exodus of migrants and asylum seekers over the last several years. While the cost of human suffering is difficult if not impossible to quantity, it remains clear that women and children have been the most vulnerable in this regard.

“Women are far more exposed to sexual violence and torture than men. They are less likely to defend themselves, more likely to be used as coin for trade and are often trafficked for sex,” says Diana Tudorancea, a mental health officer for the Migrant Women Association of Malta. “We’re witnessing the arrival of an unprecedented number of unaccompanied children — minors between the ages of 14 to 17. This naturally puts an added strain on the system in terms of special attention and care.”

A lack of a comprehensive policy within the EU concerning the integration of refugees or the fate of those rescued at sea is a glaring lacuna in the sphere of human rights.

On April 13, 2019, Malta permitted an NGO rescue ship — the Alan Kurdi, named after the drowned toddler migrant — to disembark 64 migrants after the ship was refused entry to Italy. The rescued passengers and crew had been adrift for many days, facing critical food and medical shortages. They were forced to remain at sea as their fate was being negotiated between the various EU regulatory bodies.

This incident is a grim throwback to the standoffs involving the Lifeline and Aquarius, two high-profile NGO rescue vessels. Both ships had initially been refused disembarkation in 2018. Algerian-born and British-based Marc Tilley was a volunteer with the Lifeline and privy to the publicized row between the rescue ship and the Maltese authorities.

“While we are grateful to both Malta and Italy for granting refuge to so many migrants rescued at sea, we need a policy that supports humanitarian assistance and does not criminalize life-saving work,” Tilley says. “I think we should all agree that letting people drown is not a solution.”

As mounting pressure forces NGO vessels such as the Lifeline to curtail or forego humanitarian and rescue efforts, hundreds are left to drown at sea. “The future is grim,” Kalweit says. “Funds intended to support crucial developmental work are being diverted to bolster security measures. We are building a fortress around Europe.”

Falzon agrees. “The funds follow the discourse, and if you look at the budgets of various EU agencies, the bulk is being diverted to increasing the security framework instead of strengthening civil society.”

What is undoubtedly clear is that no matter one’s opinion on the best way forward, the statistics prove that the ongoing saga of the refugee crisis is far from over. It’s also succinctly clear that a lack of a cohesive agenda only compounds the gravity of the problem.

Freedom is ready to move on with his life. He doesn’t dwell on the past, but he does look to the future. In spite of his extraordinary struggles and numerous setbacks, he remains hopeful. “I am thankful,” he says. “I have a chance at a new life. Maybe someday I can play football. I know it’s a dream, but it’s good to hold onto a dream.”

After a brief pause, he smiles broadly before explaining, “I’m sharing my story because I need help. I’m not looking for charity. However, I do need help, and I have the courage to admit it. I’m sharing my story because it’s important for people to understand my pain. Maybe if they knew the full story, they’d be willing to help me and others like me.”