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Challenge Of Mediterranean Migrant Crisis (1)

Not helping matters in the increasingly deadly migrant crisis now playing out in the Mediterranean are the so-called people smugglers. These callous smugglers have made the chaotic and anarchic post-Muammar Ghadafi’s Libya the hub of the illicit business

Okechukwu Emeh, Jr

Geographically, the Mediterranean Sea passes along countries of southern Europe like Spain, Malta, Italy, Portugal and Greece, as well as the shoreline of North African states, including Libya, Egypt and Tunisia. Strategically, the mammoth sea is one of the most important routes for facilitating trade and commerce between Europe and Africa through shipping. However, the Mediterranean is currently on the front burner of international headlines. Obviously, this is on account of worsening crisis of rickety, overcrowded and unsafe migrant boats that often capsize in the sea while on illegal journeys to Europe from North Africa in recent months, alas leading to tragic and unnecessary loss of hundreds of lives.

The worst of such incidents, seen as the deadliest in the Mediterranean and source of renewed international focus on the plight of illegal migrants, was the one that happened off the Libyan coast in the middle of last April, in which nearly 900 people were feared drowned. From all accounts, most of the stream of Mediterranean migrants are Africans seeking to escape from hard realities of life in their homelands like misrule, political instability, armed conflict, insecurity, persecution, economic adversity, crushing poverty, chronic unemployment, hunger, famine and environmental depredation (including the adverse effects of climate change and the associated global warming).

They principally come from countries wracked by bloody conflict and abysmal human rights records, including Eritrea, Somalia, Libya, Sudan, Egypt, Mali, Sudan, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The would-be migrants from these countries are joined by people fleeing sectarian violence and persecution in far-flung places like Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Palestine, Afghanistan and Myanmar (Burma). Others from countries like Nigeria, Ghana, Mauritania, Tunisia Senegal, The Gambia and Bangladesh are in desperate search of greener pastures or economic prosperity in Europe.

Not helping matters in the increasingly deadly migrant crisis now playing out in the Mediterranean are the so-called people smugglers. These callous smugglers have made the chaotic and anarchic post-Muammar Ghadafi’s Libya the hub of the illicit business after the lull in the use of other transit countries like Morocco (en route to Spanish Canary Islands and enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla) and Tunisia (entrance to Greece via the Aegean Sea). They have capitalised on calmer seas and desire of people to migrate to Europe at all costs to aggravate the crisis because of the material gain.

According to the United Nations (UN), the net profit of people smuggling in Libya was in the region of $170 million last year. The smugglers use unseaworthy and overloaded vessels, mostly rafts, fishing boats and rubber dinghies, to ply their trade, which account for the high rate of shipwreck in the Mediterranean Sea in recent weeks and the attendant heavy casualties. At the last count, over 1,800 people have died this year in the course of such hazardous journeys across the sea. Altogether, between 2014 and 2015, about 5,000 migrants have perished in the waters of Mediterranean, with most of them heading to Italy. It is worrisome that despite the gory tales of death in the Mediterranean Sea, almost every fortnight, if not week, many intending migrants embarking on illegal journeys to Europe have been rescued since the beginning of this year.

The total number of people saved so far from drowning in the sea by the maritime forces (navy and coastguard) of southern European countries like Italy is put at over 10,000. Going by the recurrent terrifying reports of migrant boat capsizing in the Mediterranean Sea in recent weeks, the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) has estimated that more than 30,000 people may die by the end of this year from the festering crisis if drastic actions are not taken by the international community to arrest this unfolding humanitarian tragedy. In the face of the mounting death toll from the Mediterranean migrant crisis, it is gratifying that European Union (EU) leaders, after an emergency meeting last April, have decided to treat the crisis with greater urgency.

Part of the 10-point action plan they have unfurled to wrestle with the precarious situation are tripling the funding for rescue operations by naval patrols of EU countries under the Triton programme, sharing of intelligence about people smuggling networks, systematic effort to capture and destroy vessels used by the smugglers (including the possible use of military action), antipiracy campaign on the scale of Operation Atalanta (in which EU helicopters would attack the boats and fuel dumps of people smugglers just as they were deployed to fight Somali pirates at the peak of their criminal activities in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden several years ago) and spreading the burden of taking in refugees.

To be candid, without delay and prevarication by the EU countries, some of these plans are achievable, including the tasking one of national quotas for housing asylum seekers, which countries like the United Kingdom (UK), Germany, France and Hungary may oppose because of their tough asylum policies, fear of public opinion and threat from far-right racial supremacist movements and political parties. To vigorously address the plight of the Mediterranean migrants, now dubbed Europe’s boat people, the EU should go beyond her current spending plans on the crisis by considering a number of confidence – building measures.

One of them is establishing asylum processing camps in entry points in North African countries like Libya, Egypt and Tunisia to handle both migrants trying to reach Europe overland and those saved from the seas. These countries, as an incentive, should be paid by the EU to maintain the camps. It is expected that asylum process for the Mediterranean migrants would be fast, fair and effective. While concessions should be given to migrants seeking to escape oppression, gross human rights abuses and violent conflict, those rejected on the grounds of hankering for economic opportunities abroad should be repatriated to their countries.

More importantly, the EU countries are obligated to sign up to their shore of refugees, as conceded to the Vietnamese boat people fleeing communist repression in their homeland in the 1970s and 80s. Thankfully, the judgement by the European Court of Human Rights this year stipulated that migrants must be given a fair chance to apply for asylum and may not automatically be sent back even if rescued in international waters.

This landmark ruling is in tandem with the UN conventions that make refugees the responsibility of any country where they turn up. it is expected that such resolutions would serve as a morasuasion to countries like the UK, Spain, France and Germany to change their stance on not allowing hapless migrants to reach their shores due to fear that allowing a few to come in would lead to an unstoppable flow. (To be concluded tomorrow)

•Emeh, a social researcher based in Abuja, wrote in via okemehjr@yahoo.com, Tel: 08036895746

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