by Uche Igwe
Frequent deaths of illegal travellers along other dangerous routes including the Mediterranean Sea are disturbing and horrifying. But they do not make much news to many. What could make news is the heightened frequency of the deaths probably due to more illegal travellers, some fleeing from deepening instability in parts of North and West Africa. The conflict that erupted after the death of former Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, is a case in point. The same as the civil war in Northern Mali and the continued killings and displacement caused by the deadly insurgents popularly known as Boko Haram of Northern Nigeria. What is probably more disturbing is that national governments where these citizens originate their travels from, to their untimely deaths, remain helpless at what is clearly an emergency. The lukewarm response of the international community of pretentious friends is another familiar occurrence that a globalised world can no longer continue to condone.
But as many citizens of the world keep dying on the doorstep of Europe, a global response to such a global crisis can no longer be postponed. A few days ago, news broke out about an Italian ship that arrived Malta with 24 corpses which were recovered after a boat believed to be carrying up to 700 people capsized while trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea from North Africa. These stories keep coming and are oftentimes underreported by the media. Sometime in October 2013, another 366 people died off the Italian island of Lampedusa, when the fishing boat they were travelling in from Libya capsized. There is no blame game here, but would it be the same if those dying were Europeans?
The number of people that die daily attempting to cross over to Europe through the Mediterranean Sea is difficult to quantify. The same way as who they are, where they are travelling from, and even where they end up travelling to, are often difficult to clarify. It is often a suicide mission, but the kind of discontent that makes these precarious endeavours an option is rather unclear. However, one could guess their mission is to search for a better life and that their fuel is a desperation to achieve it. To them, that good life must be elsewhere, not at home. Some are aware of the level of risks involved, yet they keep travelling and keep dying. Of a truth, no one can go through such a hell of migration unless things are extremely bad at home. For instance, an estimated total of 4,868 people died trying to get to Europe last year from Africa alone.
Cross border smuggling is sustained as part of a well-oiled criminal enterprise that spreads across networks in transit countries in Africa all the way to Europe. These profit-seeking criminals specialise in transporting these migrants across borders and in-between continents. Shipwrecks killing hundreds at a time have been happening in the Mediterranean Sea for years, yet these evil merchants continue in their illicit trafficking of humans. They cannot budge unless they are stopped by constructive policy and law enforcement. They have lost their humanity. Just as those they traffic.
Tears dropped uncontrollably from my eyes as I read the painful account of how 12 ill-fated Christian immigrants were thrown overboard by their Muslim co-travellers. The victims probably felt that praying could save their sinking boat and save all those travelling with them, including their Muslim counterparts, from untimely death. Little did they know that some of those who they were praying for would be the ones who would send them faster to the death they wanted to avoid? What a painful way to die? One of them reportedly bit off the finger of his killer. The travellers were said to be from Senegal, The Gambia, Ghana, and of course, Nigeria. Even with death staring them in the face, those murderous villains could not overcome divisiveness and religious bigotry. What a shame! According to the United Nations Office of Drug and Crime, some 5,500 migrants are thought to be smuggled annually from East, North and West Africa into Europe. Between 1996 and 2011, at least 1,691 people died while attempting to cross the Sahara Desert, and in 2008 alone, 1,000 deaths occurred as a result of sea crossing. The truth is that getting the real number of illegal cross border migrants is a complex exercise because it is an underground matter.
Fees charged to smuggle migrants differ substantially based on origin with figures ranging from $2,000 to $5,000. Despite the huge amount charged, these profit seeking smugglers treat the migrants as goods, leaving them vulnerable to many forms of abuse. Their safety is often put at risk. Some suffocate in containers, others perish in deserts or drown at sea.
Pope Francis has called for increased compassion from devotees of global cooperation. The Italian President Matteo Renzi and the European Union have urged other member states to show increased interest in rescue operations and other issues related to migration into Europe. An emergency European Union Council summit took place in Brussels on Thursday, April 23, 2015, and other international meetings will no doubt follow. However, while conferencing and political dialogue are useful, that is mere talking to each other. This is no longer sufficient for the scale of the migration-relating crisis that is looming. Political rhetoric and inconsistency of positions on such a contentious issue, will only further undermine trust, increase suspicion and contaminate relationships. This is a time for stakeholders from Europe and Africa to talk with each other, and to break the barriers of the traditional donor-recipient relationship that allows hypocrisy to diminish commitment to realistic action. They must explore areas of common interest, and put in place a coordinated mechanism for cooperation. The approach should be multi-dimensional and multi-faceted. There is a need for both short-term immediate actions as well as more long-term strategies followed by a coordinated action accordingly.
Also, a broad-based enlightenment campaign needs to be mounted on the African continent where these immigrants originate from, to educate them that; “there are no such things as a free lunch” available anywhere in Europe. The African political elite must take responsibility for the unfolding tragedy and take decisive steps. They must also realise the urgency in improving infrastructure in their countries, providing employment for the youths, and that containing escalating conflicts, will be the right direction for action.
African countries must also begin to strongly police their own borders appropriately in order to check the activities of criminal networks that specialise in smuggling immigrants across continents. Interestingly, the same routes provide access for cross border smuggling of prohibited items like hard drugs and small arms and light weapons. A concrete joint Europe-Africa effort is timely to add teeth to the frequent political conversations. Big countries like Nigeria will be expected to lead the way. The newly elected government of Muhammadu Buhari has an opportunity to provide direction for other African countries to follow. These frequent deaths on the doorstep of Europe are avoidable. This has now become a human tragedy that must be treated as an emergency. We cannot blame the victims. This tragedy is human made and can be stopped if we have the political will and common determination to take action.
Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija