Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A sea of the dead

Refugees drowning in Mediterranean create catch-22 for EU

  • Print
A Syrian refugee comes ashore in Malta after being rescued after a ship capsized.

CP Enlarge Image

A Syrian refugee comes ashore in Malta after being rescued after a ship capsized.

"I don't know how many more people need to die at sea before something gets done," said Malta's prime minister, Joseph Muscat. "As things stand we are building a cemetery within our Mediterranean Sea."

He was talking about the part of the Mediterranean between the North African coast and the two islands that are the closest bits of the European Union: the Italian island of Lampedusa and his own country, Malta.

In the past two weeks, almost as many migrants have died in that narrow stretch of water -- only 120 kilometres separate the Tunisian coast from Lampedusa -- as died along the U.S.-Mexican border in all of last year.

On the southern U.S. border they mostly die of thirst in the desert; in the Mediterranean they drown. The migrants pay the people smugglers in Libya or Tunisia thousands of dollars each to make the crossing in small, unseaworthy, grossly overcrowded boats, but the smugglers don't go with them. They don't want to get arrested at the end of the journey. They just hand over the keys to the migrants.

The refugees -- more than half of the 32,000 who have reached Italy so far this year come from Syria, Somalia or Eritrea -- have no experience at sea. The boats leak, they run out of fuel, they catch fire, and nobody knows what to do about it. In many cases, the boats just capsize when everybody rushes to the same side to call for help from a passing ship or aircraft.

Then they are in the water, and of course there are no life-jackets. Last week, when 359 Somali and Eritrean migrants drowned in a single boat, nobody even had a satellite phone to summon help. Most of the migrants can't swim, and even those who can often drown before help arrives. Every sinking brings stories of parents who could swim, but had to choose which children to save.

"For us it's intolerable that the Mediterranean is a sea of the dead," said Prime Minister Enrico Letta of Italy this week, announcing that his country is tripling its air and naval presence in the death zone. But as Interior Minister Angelino Alfano warned, "It's not a given that the intervention of an Italian ship will mean that migrants are taken to an Italian port."

They don't want the migrants to die, but they don't want them to stay in Italy either. As in other European Union countries that are getting a lot of asylum-seekers, the flood of migrants from Africa and the Middle East is fuelling a powerful anti-immigrant backlash.

The numbers are not really all that huge. Frontex, the EU agency that deals with refugees, recorded only 272,208 asylum-seekers last year. That's the biggest number since 2005, but it's only a drop in the bucket among the EU's 400 million people.

The problem is that they almost all head for a few relatively rich countries in western Europe -- Britain, France, Germany and the low countries -- or else end up stranded in Greece, Italy or Spain, the countries closest to where the refugees sail from. And for Italy, in particular, the problem has got a lot worse recently.

A joint EU police force managed to close off the previously favoured route for Middle Eastern refugees, the Greek-Turkish border, in 2010, but that just redirected the migrants to sea routes across the Mediterranean. The recent revolutions in Libya and Tunisia have crippled the ability of those countries to control their own coasts. And the wars in Syria and Somalia are generating ever larger numbers of desperate asylum-seekers.

The Italians do let most of the migrants stay -- although Germany accused Italy last May of encouraging the refugees to move on by giving them 500 euros ($680) and a "Schengen" visa that allows them to travel to most other EU countries without passport checks. But the brutal truth is this: the safer the EU countries make the Mediterranean crossing, the more people will try to come.

Most of the migrants currently risking their lives in those little boats are genuine refugees, but behind them, in the vast sweep of countries from West Africa to Somalia and Iraq, there are several hundred million others who would leap at the chance of moving to Europe. The nationalists in those countries will indignantly deny that, but you only have to talk to ordinary people there to know that it is true.

Europeans, like most people, want to see themselves as generous and caring, but behind all the humanitarian talk there is the stark reality that the EU will never make it so easy and safe to get in that even a small fraction of that vast reservoir of would-be migrants actually tries to make the journey. European leaders who let that happen would be committing political suicide.

The least bad solution would be to encourage the emergence of stable governments in Tunisia and Libya that could stop the boats from leaving their shores, but that will not happen any time soon. In the meantime, people will go on drowning in the Mediterranean, although hopefully in smaller numbers than the catastrophe of the last few weeks.

 

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 18, 2013 A13

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Key of Bart - Evil Las Vegas

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Marc Gallant / Winnipeg Free Press.  Local/Standup- Morning Fog. Horse prances in field by McPhillips Road, north of Winnipeg. 060605.
  • Down the Hatch- A pelican swallows a fresh fish that it caught on the Red River near Lockport, Manitoba. Wednesday morning- May 01, 2013   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

What do you think of the new school-zone speed limit?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google