Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1256, (30 July - 5 August 2015)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1256, (30 July - 5 August 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The mass grave of the Mediterranean

The warm summer weather is again inviting droves of migrants to flee poverty and war on the perilous journey to Europe across the Mediterranean, writes Gihan Shahine

Al-Ahram Weekly

It was pitch dark and shortly before midnight on 14 May this year when some 800 desperate migrants packed on a small fishing boat some 180 km south of the Italian shores in the middle of the Mediterranean heard a loud bang. They soon plunged to their doom, and the first rays of the morning had nothing to reflect on but a mass of dead bodies dotting the once beautiful waves of the azure sea.

The tragedy occurred when the captain of the boat was making a distress call from the impossibly crowded fishing vessel crammed with desperate illegal migrants. The captain, reportedly drunk, had mistakenly steered the boat into a nearby Portuguese merchant vessel, which had probably approached to answer the distress call.

Panicking passengers reportedly fled to one side of the vessel to see what was happening, only to be overwhelmed by the chilly waves of the sea. The small boat, which had set off from Egypt before stopping in Libya to pick up more migrants and was heading for Italy, keeled over and capsized.

At least 800 people died in what became the deadliest tragedy to take place in the Mediterranean thus far. It was, in the words of Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, “nothing less than genocide”. Most of the migrants reportedly hailed from Mali, Gambia, Senegal, Somalia, Eritrea and Bangladesh. The passengers were mostly men, but there were also a number of women, including one pregnant woman, and children on board.  

Only 27 passengers survived the shipwreck since they were on the top deck at the time. Shivering from exhaustion and shock, and sometimes even breaking into hysterical cries, some of the survivors talked to the UK newspaper The Daily Mail from a holding centre near Catania on Sicily’s eastern coast a few hours later.

They gave harrowing accounts of how they had clung to dead bodies and life jackets to keep them afloat as they fought against the high waves in the dark night. Others described how most of the women and children had been sitting below deck before the tragedy occurred and had been trapped “like rats in a cage” when the vessel turned over, immediately disappearing under the waves.

 “I was very scared. It was dark and all you could hear was people screaming. I just prayed I would live,” 16-year-old Somali emigrant Abdirizzak Hassan told the newspaper.

Such harrowing stories told by illegal migrants crossing the Mediterranean have been heard many times before, and incidents of people dying in overloaded fishing boats heading to Europe have now become almost a daily occurrence. According to news reports, Italian rescue operations alone now reportedly pluck some 1,000 migrants a day from sinking boats in the Mediterranean Sea.

Estimates indicate that the number of lives lost in such migration this year has now hit the 1,700 mark, including the tally of the May tragedy, and nearly 5,000 since the start of 2014. In the meantime, nearly 200,000 illegal immigrants have made it to Italy after getting rescued by coast guards.

European Union officials speculate that up to one million more would-be migrants are probably still waiting in conflict-torn Libya to board boats for the perilous journey to Europe. The consensus is that the turmoil in the Middle East, especially in Libya, Syria and Iraq, together with poverty and persecution in some parts of Africa, is now pushing more and more people to seek haven in European countries whose welfare systems can be generous to them if they are successful in gaining asylum.

Observers suggest that the torrent of illegal immigration to Europe has reached two peaks over the past four years and is currently hitting unprecedented levels following the Arab Spring Revolutions four years ago.  

According to the editor of the Middle East Website Middle East Eye, David Hearst, statistical records from Frontex, the European Union border agency, indicated a drop in migrant flows as public hopes rose at the start of the Arab Spring and with the fall of the Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011. “There was hope in the air,” he noted. “Millions of Arabs believed in a better future.”

But that soon changed. More recent reports, including one by the European Commission, indicate that migrant flows in the central Mediterranean have increased substantially. The reports record two peaks in departures from Libya, an almost four-fold increase in the number of migrants in the first half of 2014, and a second unprecedented surge this year.

In 2014, the detection of migrants in “the central Mediterranean area reached a staggering level,” according to Frontex. “More than 170,000 migrants arrived in Italy alone, representing the largest influx into one country in European Union history. Many migrants have departed from Libya, where the lack of the rule of law allows smuggling networks to thrive,” it noted.

“Syrians fleeing the civil war and Eritreans were the top two nationalities, but numerous Africans coming from Sub-Saharan regions also use this route,” Frontex added.

The picture has been similar this year, with some 36,390 migrants having made it across the Mediterranean to Italy, Greece and Malta by sea, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR. 1,750 of them have died, and the same number has gone missing.

Illegal migration has also become a huge business, and traffickers have been capitalising on the absence of security in both Libya and Egypt since the Arab Spring. The European Commission has reported that “it appears that people have paid in most cases between $5,000 and $7,000 per person per trip, and in some cases children have travelled for free.”

A fishing boat carrying 800 migrants therefore yields around $4 million for the traffickers. Egypt’s borders with Libya are also notorious for the operations of traffickers heading for Europe.

GROWING CONCERN IN EGYPT: It was on a sad afternoon in the village of Meet Nagi in the Daqahliya governorate two years ago that families clad in black expressed their grief for the loss of 15 young people, drowned with a further 25 illegal migrants who had  remained missing in the Mediterranean.

As the gradually dimming light of the sunset reflected sadly on the brown edges of the river in the impoverished village where families were waiting for the coffins of their loved ones to arrive, one young man was still busy buying food for the perilous boat journey he was planning.

Indifferent to the sounds and sights of death that dotted the village, the man said he was “dying anyway” and wanted to risk the journey to Europe. The scenes of grief in the village were tinged with an atmosphere of poverty that had left obvious marks on the village’s houses and people. Against this backdrop, the young man, jobless for years, explained the sense of desperation that had pushed his fellow villagers to their deaths.

 “It’s like you’re stuck in a room on the 10th floor without food or water, and to survive you have to take the risk of jumping. You are dying anyway, but at least when you jump you may have a chance to live,” he said.

Although there are no accurate statistics regarding the number of illegal migrants from Egypt, Adel William, secretary-general of Awlad Al-Ard, an NGO which has been working on this issue for years, said illegal migration had increased significantly over the past few years, especially as the economy had floundered badly following the 25 January Revolution.

“It’s difficult to arrive at an accurate count, or even an estimate, of the number of illegal migrants because there are no papers or documents,” he explained. “After all, you do not know about those who have died unless someone survives and tells you. Otherwise, you never actually know whether these people are in detention camps in Italy or have drowned. More often than not, people just disappear.”

William says that the first six months following the 2011 Revolution saw a significant drop in the number of illegal migrants because people had hopes for better things. “But as the economy worsened, unemployment and poverty increased and people had no other choice but to throw themselves into the Mediterranean to survive,” he says.

A study carried out by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has indicated that the main reasons behind Egyptian migration are low wages and the lack of employment opportunities at home, especially among new graduates. As per capita income is declining for many Egyptians in comparison to the rises in prices due to the ongoing political turmoil in the country, illegal migration has appeared to be a last resort for many fleeing unemployment and poverty at home.

Today, despite government promises that the economy is improving and mega-projects like the new Suez Canal waterway will open soon, “people are still desperate because they are not feeling improvements in their everyday lives,” according to William. “They hear that the Suez Canal mega-project will improve the economy, but for them that mega-project does not help them find employment,” he explained. “They cannot wait until the economy improves when they can’t eat right now.”

Studies of illegal migration indicate that the phenomenon is more widespread in rural areas than in urban ones, since poverty and unemployment levels are significantly higher. The introduction of technology into agriculture has resulted in less demand for the agricultural workforce, leaving increasing numbers of villagers unemployed.

Meanwhile, it is comparatively easy for villagers to sell a small piece of land to get the LE30,000 to LE40,000 needed to make the perilous journey to Europe. “Strong social networks also make it easier for people to borrow the money needed to travel even if they don’t have land,” William added.

Peer pressure has also been instrumental in encouraging the tide of illegal migrants from Egypt. “Some villages, like Tatoon in the Fayoum governorate and Telbana and Mit Nagi in Daqahliya, have been turned into main exporters for illegal migrants, since many people who have successfully made it to Europe have come back with fortunes,” William said.

“People who are often mostly impoverished and unemployed envy the successful ones that see driving through their villages in luxury cars. Some villages have been notorious for having high rates of illegal migration, to the extent that they have even been given Italian nicknames.”

Many people, however, remain unaware of the hazardous consequences of illegal migration. Death is not the only hazard, and many Egyptians who have made it to Europe have come back telling stories of how harsh life can be on the continent.

Illegal migrants, having no papers and no legal rights, can be employed in work that the people of the host country will not accept to do themselves. They are usually paid poor salaries, and they often have shabby or inadequate lodgings.

More often than not, those who have survived the perilous journey can also end up in detention camps in Europe, being deported back to Egypt having lost all their savings and their pride. They can come back even more desperate than they were when they left, since they are now mired in debt. Many of those surviving a failed attempt at migration might even think of retaking the trip in order to be able to pay the debt off.

One unemployed young man with a vocational certificate from the village of Samanoud in the Gharbiya governorate who had survived an illegal trip to Greece said he would be prepared to do the same thing again. Having lost all his savings and a previous fiancée as a result of his first failed attempt to get to Europe, he is still desperate without a stable job in Egypt and unable to get married as a result.

“I simply have no other choice but to re-take the risk,” he said. “All those who have survived think the same.”

But the families, especially the wives, of illegal migrants also have a high price to pay. More often than not illegal migrants disappear, and their wives, usually still in their early twenties, find themselves in a difficult situation. These women are unable to say whether their husbands are dead or alive, and as a result they are unable even to seek a divorce.

They remain without any kind of financial support. They cannot get a pension because they cannot prove their husbands are dead, and nor can they remarry.

They can be left with considerable debts and no assets to support themselves. Sometimes their in-laws, already unable to make ends meet and with many mouths to feed, are tempted to get rid of such unwanted wives, expelling them to lives of unenviable tragedy. Many children of such families are homeless or drop out of school.

Shadia (not her real name) is among such women left with financial burdens and two children to feed when her husband disappeared some years ago en route to Italy. He was one of 20 illegal migrants from the village of Telbana who had taken the perilous sea journey to Italy and then just disappeared.

Shadia does not know whether her husband is dead or alive or whether he has been detained in Italy. Although her life has been harsh since her husband disappeared, she still insists that migration was the only way forward for her unemployed husband.

“Nobody risks his life unless he is desperate,” she said with a sigh. “Poverty is harsh, and it’s bitter when you feel you cannot feed your kids.” Today she has learnt her lesson, though, and she would never let her husband take such a risk again were he to return home to her.

“There have also been cases where the families of deceased illegal migrants have been unable to get the money they made in foreign countries because of a lack of legal papers or because they sometimes live under forged names,” William added.

“We have been following at least one case where the migrant concerned managed to open a chain of restaurants in Italy, but under a forged ID with a different name and nationality, and his poor family back home was unable to claim their rights or prove they were his family when he died.”

NOT PAYING OFF: In its attempts to find a solution to the problem of illegal migration, the Egyptian Union for Human Rights (EUHR), an NGO, has proposed a draft law to counter the phenomenon.

Naguib Ghobraiel, secretary-general of the EUHR, said that the 17-article draft law defined illegal migration as “any action of an individual or group that leads to exiting or attempting to exit the country to any other place regionally, internationally or continentally without the authorisation or license of the respective authorities.”

The draft law, recently proposed to the government, imposes penalties for the crime of committing, participating in, or inciting illegal migration that range from between 15 years in prison and the death sentence. The law also demands capital punishment for anyone participating in the trafficking of illegal migrants such that this leads to the deaths of the migrants concerned.

Ghobraiel said he hoped the draft law would “help curb the number of people who attempt illegal migration and tighten the grip on traffickers who gain huge amounts of money by facilitating it.”

However, many human rights activists disagree with this approach, including William who insists that imposing harsh penalties will not work unless real solutions are sought to address the root of the problem.

“Poverty lies at the root of the problem,” he said, “and without creating more jobs in rural areas and income-generating opportunities for desperate young people, it will definitely persist.” After all, many agree that tightening the penalties on those who build on agricultural land or who break the traffic laws have also failed to address these problems.  

“The government needs to treat the disease, not just the symptoms, if it is really serious about solving these issues,” William went on. “People are dying to escape from poverty and unemployment, so even if you imprison one a hundred others will pop up so long as they have no other way to survive. The same thing will happen with the traffickers. The problem should be addressed as a social and a human issue, especially when we know that Egyptians by nature are not risk-takers.”

William suggests that the government should allow civil society groups to hold seminars in youth centres in rural areas in order to increase awareness of the negative consequences of illegal migration. “In the meantime, it should introduce alternative solutions, offering micro-projects with budgets of around LE10,000, as is the case in China, in order to create employment. It is here that we should start,” he said.

Some days after the May tragedy, Egypt moderated a European-African Agreement on combatting illegal migration and human-trafficking. “The coming period will witness increasing coordination between the European and African sides,” the foreign ministry stated at the time. The initiative, it said, “comes as part of Egypt’s role in calling on the EU to adopt a more positive policy towards illegal migration, whilst opening up new pathways for legal immigration.”

A case study of illegal migrants in Egypt by Ali Tolba, a professor of sociology at the University of Qena in Upper Egypt, has also found that the strict policies adopted by some European countries towards illegal migrants not only make those migrants unable to integrate into the host communities in the normal way, but also allows for their abuse, including their detention in isolated camps in inhumane conditions.

“The affluent European countries have not provided any real solutions to the illegal migration issue. They have not provided enough financial assistance to the impoverished countries where the migrants come from in order to help curb the influx,” Tolba insisted. In the meantime, strict policies on legal migration have closed the door in the face of many seeking jobs in such countries, resulting in many resorting to illegal means, he said.

William concurred. “I can safely say that until recently the governments of the European countries have actually been turning a blind eye to illegal migration, because the migrant workers do the dirty work, sometimes in hazardous conditions, that the Europeans do not want to do themselves,” he noted.

“Europe has only woken up to this problem since the spread of terrorism in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. Now it is unable to control its borders or cope with the surge in the number of illegal migrants.”

EUROPEAN REACTION: The EU has recently been under fire as many human rights activists have insisted that member countries are not doing enough to rescue migrants, or provide the rescued with asylum, or offer concrete solutions to the countries they have fled from.

In the meantime, xenophobia has increased among many Europeans, who have been questioning their governments over whether they have lost control over their borders. Martin Schulz, the president of the European parliament, was quoted in the aftermath of the May tragedy lashing out at what he described as “European apathy” over the migration crisis.

“How many more people will have to drown until we finally act in Europe,” he asked. “How many more times do we want to express our dismay, only to then move on to our daily routines?”

Italy has been at the forefront of coping with the surge in the numbers of migrants and has been urging other European countries for assistance to cope with it. 

It adopted a widely praised Italian-led search-and-rescue programme in the Mediterranean, but when that programme expired it was replaced with a European-led Triton programme intended to patrol the Mediterranean and rescue migrants. However, critics insist that the Triton programme is “very limited in scope and resources and thus is placing the migrants at grave risk.”

EU governments have been holding extensive meetings and officials have been declaring to the press that they are trying to come up with a strategy that balances humanitarian responsibilities against budget constraints and growing public sentiment against migration.

Whereas some EU member states have suggested a military intervention in Libya to fight the traffickers, critics say there is not enough will in Europe to increase the number of rescue boats patrolling the Mediterranean or the number of refugees European states will accept from the surviving asylum seekers.

Many thus seem to agree with Middle East Eye editor David Hearst, who says the European reaction is no more than “crocodile tears over the mass grave that the Mediterranean has become”.  

“Reactions have ranged from a begrudging acknowledgment from British officials that they got the consequences of NATO’s military intervention in Libya wrong, to calls for another one,” he wrote on the Website. “Few have shown any sign that they will treat the mass drowning as what they are: a humanitarian disaster.”

The equally dismayed Italian Red Cross chief Francesco Rocca has concurred that the international community should be able to find a solution for those illegal migrants who mostly “don’t want to escape” but are “forced to escape” their homelands.

“They are escaping war, and they are escaping hunger, so this is something we cannot avoid,” he told the BBC. “If we block one route, they will find another route, so this is something we have to face... and not only with words or actions that don’t match the concrete needs of the people concerned.”

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