A few months ago I was studying Arabic in the train when the man next to me asked about my textbook. It turned out he was from the tiny African nation of Eritrea, and he spoke a Sudanese variety of Arabic. After trying out a few words, the conversation turned to how he came to be in the Netherlands. It turned out he had fled the incredibly oppressive regime in Eritrea, and taken an incredible journey through the Sahara desert across Sudan and war torn Libya. In Tripoli he got on a crowded boat to cross the Mediterranean, before landing on a beach in Italy. From there he went overland to the Netherlands, looking for a country that was more open to refugees. Here he managed to gain asylum, and now has a job and is learning Dutch.
300 people just like him drowned this week in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.
The sunken boat was just one of four that left for Europe this week. The African migrants in the other boats were found drifting without food or water. The survivors have been brought to the Italian island of Lampedusa, which is already overcrowded. From there they will most likely be taken to reception centres in Italy. From these reception centres they will most likely subtly be allowed to leave by the Italian authorities, who know that the migrants will head north to other EU countries, to either claim asylum or work illegally.
These people,of whom there were 160 000 in 2014, are destined for the harsh world of immigration authorities or underground work. They’re the lucky ones though. They have avoided joining more than 3000 of their fellows who drowned in 2014. This is an immense humanitarian crisis, and it’s one Europe is failing to deal with.
In 2013 after 350 migrants died off Italy, the Italians set up the Mare Nostrum program. Spending over 9.5 million euro a month, the mission of this search and rescue program was to stop migrant deaths. However, the cost of it all meant that Mare Nostrum had to stop its work in November last year. The richer nations of the EU, with all their resources, have failed to step up. They’ve put in place a simple border control program, Triton, for a third of the cost. With only six ships, it is far less effective, and that has meant the deaths of 300 people this week.
The reason Triton is so much smaller is that countries like the UK oppose search and rescue missions, coming to the conclusion that they will only encourage more migrants. To me this is a pretty foolish argument. People fleeing civil wars in Syria and Libya are not going to be weighing up the exact number of ships that could rescue them. They just want out, and they will face any risk to do so.
There are no simple answers to this crisis though, and how to deal with the flow of migrants is a complex issue. However, when thinking about this issue we need to place ourselves in the well worn shoes of the migrants. What would you do if you lived in a country like Eritrea, where you could be conscripted into the army for years on end? Or in Liberia, where 80% of people work in the informal sector, with no security or guarantees of income tomorrow? Would you want to get out? Risking it all for a better life takes incredible courage and effort, and that’s something we should never forget. You may decide that they don’t deserve to stay in the EU – but you must agree they don’t deserve to die in the middle of the ocean.
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