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Between allure of better life and death at Mediterranean sea

By Victoria Ojugbana
22 May 2015   |   6:12 am
DEATH is a necessary end, but it cannot be a pleasant end when it comes through drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. But the desperation for greener pastures, with some fleeing wars and other conflicts, has made many migrants to dare death on at sea. The sight of human cargoes being ferried across the sea in…
Rescue workers assisting shipwreck survivors

Rescue workers assisting shipwreck survivors

DEATH is a necessary end, but it cannot be a pleasant end when it comes through drowning in the Mediterranean Sea. But the desperation for greener pastures, with some fleeing wars and other conflicts, has made many migrants to dare death on at sea.

The sight of human cargoes being ferried across the sea in an overcrowded ship to Europe with a slim chance of berthing at the shore can be scary. Even the video clips of such vessels emptying its human content into the sea with a few survivors may not be enough to deter would-be sojourners waiting for the next ship.

Indeed, the allure of a promising and fulfilling life in Europe has continued to resonate across Africa in recent times, that the will to resist the temptation of exposing one’s life to risk through several nights of travelling through the desert has paled to insignificance.

Recently, a Nigerian family of four siblings who survived in the boat carrying migrants to Italy, was interviewed by the BBC. When asked what they intended to do next on their arrival in Italy, they could not give plausible answer.

The European Union and the African Union have since warned migrants against the dangers associated with crossing the Mediterranean Sea, as there have reportedly been cases of boats capsizing and migrants drowning. Despite these, it is still surprising that people dare the deaths on the sea as many embark on the tortuous and deadly journey.

The International Organisation for Migration has said that deaths at sea have increased nine-fold after the end of Operation Mare Nostrum. Amnesty International condemned European governments for “negligence towards the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean”, which they say has led to an increase in deaths at sea.

Pope Francis has expressed his concern about the loss of lives and urged EU leaders to “act decisively and quickly to stop these tragedies from recurring.”

Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, noted that the tragedies were “worsened by Europe’s refusal to learn from its own mistakes and from the efforts of others who have handled similar problems.

To check these unnecessary deaths, African leaders and leaders of other nations whose citizens migrate to Europe, have to provide jobs and other necessities for their citizenry to make their countries conducive, comfortable and convenient for them to live in and ensure that their people are not attracted to migrating to other climes. The leaders should also do their possible best to ensure that wars of all forms are ended, so that people in North Africa and the Middle-East will not flee their nations, as many of the migrants who drowned in the Mediterranean, were those fleeing war.

Migrants have increasingly attempted boat voyages to Europe due to civil conflicts, unrest, persecution or economic reasons, including travelers from Afghanistan, Algeria, Bangladesh, Chad, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, India, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Libya, Mali, Mauritania, Morocco, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Senegal, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Zambia.

According to a report by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), it has recorded over 3,000 migrant fatalities this year and still counting adding that Europe is the most dangerous destination for “irregular” migration in the world. The report, “Fatal Journeys: Tracking Lives Lost During Migration,” puts numbers to the rising global phenomenon of undocumented migrant deaths, an issue that has come to the fore in recent months as hundreds of people fleeing primarily the Middle East and North Africa have drowned on rickety smugglers’ ships in the Mediterranean and other seas around the world.

Researchers collated previously scattered data on migrant deaths since 2000 and settled on a conservative tally of 40,000 victims worldwide – or about eight each day over the past 14 years. As steep as that estimate is, the IOM said it likely undershoots the actual number of irregular migrants who perish making arduous journeys across land and sea because so many governments make no attempt to keep track of their deaths.

In fact, counting the number of victims is, in itself, a step forward. In part, because governments can deflect responsibility for irregular migrants who die along their borders, there has never been comprehensive data on the scale and scope of such fatalities. According to the IOM, “no organisation at the global level is currently responsible for systematically monitoring the number of deaths that occur.”

Italy’s Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, recently called for an emergency European summit to deal with the deepening migrant crisis off its southern coast after as many as 950 men, women and children were feared to have drowned in a Mediterranean shipwreck.

With the crisis set to dominate a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Luxembourg, it was said that concerted EU action had to be a priority after the latest tragedy 60 miles north of Libya in which a prodigiously over-laden vessel capsized, leaving hundreds in the water.

United Nations (UN) Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, said governments worldwide should show solidarity and take in more refugees, adding that he was “shocked and deeply saddened” by reports of the latest shipwreck.

In April 2015, at least five boats carrying almost 2,000 migrants to Europe sank in the Mediterranean Sea, with a combined death toll estimated at more than 1,200 people.

A boat carrying migrants in the Mediterranean Sea on April 12, 2015 (Reuters)

A boat carrying migrants in the Mediterranean Sea on April 12, 2015 (Reuters)

The first sinking took place on April 13, with additional shipwrecks occurring on April 16, 19, and 20. The events took place in a context of ongoing conflicts in several North African and Middle Eastern countries, as well as the refusal by several European Union (EU) governments to fund the Italian-run rescue option Operation Mare Nostrum, which was replaced by Frontex’s Operation Triton in November 2014.

Many of the migrant vessels have been traveling from Libya to the Italian island of Lampedusa or the port of Augusta, although one of the incidents on April 20 occurred off the Greek island of Rhodes, in the eastern Mediterranean.

On April 23, EU governments agreed to triple funding for border patrol operations in the Mediterranean so that they would be equal to the previous capabilities of Operation Mare Nostrum but Amnesty International immediately criticized the EU’s decision not “to extend Triton’s operational area” to the area previously covered by Mare Nostrum.

Between 2007 and 2011, large numbers of undocumented immigrants from the Middle East, Africa and South Asia crossed between Turkey and Greece, leading Greece and the European Border Protection agency, Frontex, to upgrade border controls. In 2012, immigrant influx to Greece by land decreased by 95 per cent after the construction of a fence on that part of the Greek-Turkish frontier, which does not follow the course of the River Marica (Evros).

In 2015, Bulgaria followed by upgrading a border fence to prevent migrant flows through Turkey. The 2013, Lampedusa migrant shipwreck involved “more than 360” deaths, leading the Italian government to establish Operation Mare Nostrum, a large scale naval operation that involved search and rescue, with some migrants brought aboard a naval amphibious assault ship. In 2014, the Italian government ended the operation due to costs, which were too large for just one EU state; Frontex assumed the main responsibility for search and rescue operations. The Frontex operation is called Operation Triton. The Italian government had requested additional funds from the EU to continue the operation but member-states did not offer the requested support. The UK government cited fears that the operation was acting as “an unintended ‘pull factor’, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths”. The operation consists of two surveillance aircraft and three ships, with seven teams of staff who gather intelligence and conduct screening/identification processing. Its monthly budget is estimated at €2.9 million.

According to the International Organization for Migration, up to 3,072 migrants died or disappeared in 2014 in the Mediterranean while trying to migrate to Europe.[16] Overall estimates are that over 22,000 migrants died between 2000 and 2014.

In 2014, 283,532 migrants irregularly entered the European Union, mainly following the Central Mediterranean, Eastern Mediterranean and Western Balkan routes. 220,194 migrants crossed EU sea borders in the Central, Eastern and Western Mediterranean (a 266% increase compared to 2013). Half of them had come from Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan.

In 2014, 170,100 migrants arrived in Italy by sea, a 296% increase compared to 2013. 141,484 of the travelers ferried from Libya. The migrants had come from Syria (42,323), Eritrea (34,329), Mali (9,908), Nigeria (9,000), Gambia (8,691), Somalia (5,756), and other areas (4,095). 64,625 applied for asylum.

Between January 1 and March 3, 2015, 7,882 migrants arrived in Italy by sea, a +40.5% increase compared to the same period in 2014. 7,257 of the travelers ferried from Libya. Most of them had come from the Horn of Africa (1,088 from Somalia, 817 from Eritrea), West Africa (969 from Gambia, 919 from Senegal, 725 from Mali, 463 from Nigeria, 282 from Ivory Coast, 173 from Guinea) and Syria (920).

As of April 17, the total number of migrants reaching the Italian coasts is 21,191 since 1 January 2015, with a decrease during the month of March due to bad weather conditions, and a surge since 10 April, bringing the total number of arrivals in line with the number recorded in the same period in 2014. However, the death toll in the first four months of 2014 was 96, compared with 500 in the same period in 2015; this number excludes victims of the devastating shipwrecks on 13 and 19 April.

The number of reported deaths of migrants crossing the Mediterranean towards Italy increased in April 2015; a number of different incidents resulted in the deaths of over 1,000 people and led to the staging of rescue operations.

On April 13, 2015, a vessel sank off the Libyan coast with up to 550 migrants on board. More than 400 people are believed to have drowned. 144-150 people have been rescued and were taken to a hospital in Southern Italy. The capsizing occurred 60 nautical miles (110 km) off the Libyan coast.

Air and sea search operations started in the location of the shipwreck, looking for survivors. Nine bodies were recovered, and the Italian Coast Guard stated that “no more survivors have been found.”

Save the Children stated that “there were 400 victims in this shipwreck, which occurred 24 hours after (their vessel) left the Libyan coast.” The International Organisation for Migration in Italy announced that the shipwreck’s cause is unknown and their investigation continues, while AFP reported, that per their initial investigations, the boat may have capsized when passengers moved after having spotted the Italian rescue team.

On April 16, four immigrants arriving in Sicily said they were the only survivors of a sunken ship. They said that 41 people had drowned when their vessel overturned and sank shortly after departing from Libya. In an unrelated incident, 15 people were arrested in Sicily following reports that they had thrown 12 other passengers overboard, causing them to drown. According to eyewitnesses, a fight had broken out between Christian and Muslim groups on the boat, resulting in 12 Christians being thrown overboard.

On April 19, another boat that had just left the port city of Zuwarah, Tripoli capsized off the Libyan coast, during the night, with up to 850 migrants aboard. 28 people were rescued. The incident happened 60 miles (100 km) off the Libyan coast and 120 miles (190 km) south of the southern Italian island, Lampedusa. The boat may have capsized when people on board moved to one side when a ship approached. People assumed that the passing ship would rescue them. Italian prosecutors say that a Bangladeshi survivor estimated 950 people were on board, and smugglers locked hundreds of the migrants in the ship’s hold. Among those on board were about 350 Eritreans, 200 Senegalese, as well as migrants from Syria, Somalia, Sierra Leone, Mali, Gambia, Ivory Coast and Ethiopia.
he Maltese Navy and Italian Coast Guard began mounting a rescue operation. Despite 18 ships joining the rescue effort, only 28 survivors and 24 bodies were pulled from the water by nightfall. This incident is cited by some as the shipwreck with the highest death toll in the history of the Mediterranean. Among other incidents, however, the sinking of the SS Oria in 1944, with a death toll of over 4,000, claimed more lives.

On April 21, Italian officials reported that the Tunisian captain of the boat had been charged with reckless multiple homicide. It was also reported that the children on board had drowned because they were trapped on the boat’s lower two levels.

The Italian Navy, at the request of the Prosecutor of Catania, has made available the minesweepers Gaeta and Vieste, along with the corvette Sfinge, for search and localisation of the vessel sank.

On May 7, 2015, a wreck blue length of 25 meters has been located approximately 85 miles north east of the Libyan coast at a depth of 375 meters, and correlated – said the Italian Navy – with the wreck of the vessel sank on April 18.

Another boat carrying migrants reportedly sank off the east coast of Rhodes, Greece on April 20, after striking a reef. Initial reports suggested that there had been at least three deaths. Ninety-three people were rescued from the water, with 30 individuals hospitalized. In contrast to the other wrecked ships, which have come from Libya, this boat had departed from Turkey.

Two further reports of ships in distress in the waters between Libya and Italy appeared on April 20. It was stated that one boat contained up to 150 people, with the other containing up to 300. The precise locations of these boats were not revealed, and it was unclear whether these reports refer to separate vessels. The Italian and Maltese navies are reported as having responded to these calls. On Tuesday, April 21, it was reported that all 450 passengers had been rescued, despite initial reports of deaths.

A dozen bodies of migrants were recovered off the coast of Libya by transport engaged in rescue operations. Sixteen boats raised the alarm, four of which have already been rescued.

They continued rescue operations and landings of migrants on the coasts of Sicily and Calabria. The ship Phoenix arrived in Pozzallo carrying 369 migrants. Other 675 immigrants landed in Augusta and 300 were rescued off the coast of Calabria. On ship container Zeran, arrived in Catania with 197 people, there were five dead bodies.

According to Save the Children, other immigrants lost their lives at sea. In Crotone, the Panamanian tanker Prince I brought 250 migrants rescued in the Channel of Sicily, but also the bodies of three others, two women and a man, recovered at sea during a rescue.

Meanwhile, what also triggered the alarm on diseases was that about 150 of the 675 migrants who arrived on the ship, Vega, in Augusta were put in isolation in the port for suspected cases of chickenpox and scabies. For doctors, there was no danger of contagion and the situation was under control. Most patients were tested and debilitated by a wait of two months in warehouses in Libya with little food and water.

In Trapani, about 104 immigrants arrived on a cargo ship, and other 483 in Palermo on the Italian navy ship Borsini. It also increased the number of smugglers arrested by the Italian police.

Off the coast of Calabria, a rescue operation of about 300 migrants on board a fishing vessel in poor buoyancy occurred about 80 miles from the coast of Calabria.
On April 20, the European Commission proposed a 10-point plan, which include, among others, to:

Reinforce the Joint Operations in the Mediterranean, namely Triton and Poseidon, by increasing the financial resources and the number of assets. We will also extend their operational area, allowing us to intervene further, within the mandate of Frontex;

A systematic effort to capture and destroy vessels used by the smugglers. The positive results obtained with the Atalanta operation should inspire us to similar operations against smugglers in the Mediterranean;
uropol, Frontex, EASO and Eurojust will meet regularly and work closely to gather information on smugglers modus operandi, to trace their funds and to assist in their investigation, among others.