Drowning Refugees, Dying Hope: The Mediterranean Tragedy
On Thursday, 27th August, a boat full of refugees from sub-Saharan Africa, Palestine, Syria, and a few South Asian countries sank near the coast of Libya. The boat had been bound for Italy. It had set sail from Zuwarah (Libyan town near Tunisian border) with around 400 people. Although an official death toll has not been announced, a post shared by the photographer Khaled Barakeh showed disturbing images of dead refugees, mostly children, on the shore. It claimed that 80 people had lost their lives in the accident, mostly Palestinians and Syrians. On the other hand, the rescued refugees by the Libyan coastguard have been put into detention facilities as illegal migrants.
Al Jazeera’s report said that their sources told them “dozens of people died in the incident, with many reported to have been trapped in the cargo hold when the boat capsized.” A large number of these poverty-stricken refugees are unable to pay for a deck position on the overcrowded boats and end up locked in the cargo hold. In most accidents, these people are sure to die or experience fatal consequences.
This terrible incident would be just another addition to the repeated accidents refugee boats bound for EU nations face on the Mediterranean sea. Another drowning occurred in March this year near the coast of Sicily. A large number of Palestinians and Syrians end up on these boats to escape and end up losing their lives. Most of these people are fleeing from the war situation and along with it, extreme poverty in their respective countries. The Palestinian refugees also come from Syria and Lebanon where the strained situations and destitution have made it impossible for them to live with refugee status. UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) spokesperson Christopher Guness states: “These tragedies involving men, women and children drowning at sea stem not only from armed conflict, occupation and a lack of protection of human rights, but more fundamentally from the failure to resolve the Palestine refugee problem. At a time of rising extremism in the Middle East region, the failure of the international community to resolve the Palestinian issue takes on an added significance.” Syria’s escalating war problem has produced refugees living in Lebanon, Turkey, and Iraq, who are trying to migrate to the EU for a safer life- but a lot of them end up dead in cargo holds.
There’s no proper infrastructure to rescue, rehabilitate, or even deport these refugees. On the other hand, smugglers are using Libya’s internal situation to their own advantage, sending off refugees to EU countries via unsafe and overcrowded boats.
In April, 800 refugees on a boat drowned near the Libyan coast. 200 activists protested England’s and EU leaders’ off-handed and apathetic handling of the issue by lying on Brighton Beach in body bags with banners as part of the #DontLetThemDrown campaign. On February 2015, 300 migrants drowned and protests were held in different parts of the EU.
A year ago, 400 Palestinians drowned while escaping Gaza. Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Observer states in a press release: “In its report issued on March 15th, 2015, the Euro-Mid Observer documents that the number of immigrants that have reached Italy in the first 2.5 months of this year are more than 8,500 immigrants, with an average of 116 immigrants per day, which is twice the number of immigrants arriving in the same period last year. Out of this number, at least 2200 immigrants are Syrian and Palestinian refugees fleeing Syria.”
The report points out that the majority of migrants arriving in Italy take the route across the sea from Libya, which is often exploited by human traffickers due to deteriorating security and the power vacuum, caused in turn by the prolonged conflict in Libya since 2011. Additionally, the lack of cooperation between EU countries to take responsibility for reduction in maritime rescue operations have led to “an aggravated situation where the risks of migrants’ drowning are much higher.” The EU started off a rescue and prevention program to reduce the number of drowning accidents in the Mediterranean Sea, but discontinued it due to the large expenditure. The International Organisation for Migration reported that there were 3,279 migrant deaths in the Mediterranean last year.
The EU authorities, instead of addressing these problems from humanitarian grounds and creating positive prevention systems are shaping it into “migrant problem”, ignoring the exploitation of refugees. The word ‘refugee’ is morphed into ‘migrants’, stripping them of the political context. This makes the situation look solely like an economic issue of deprived people coming to the EU in search of a ‘better life’, when in fact, the main motivation of these refugees is to find a safe haven.