Risking a Watery Grave for a Better Life

Illegal Migrants Reaching Europe

[#Africa] It is only once each party takes a share of sacrifice [for] an effective solution [for #IllegalImmigration]

By Institute for Security Studies – Africa (ISS Africa)

This year has seen an alarming rise in the number of asylum seekers and migrants from Africa who try to reach Europe by sea in the hope of finding a better life; often with fatal consequences.

On 26 August, footage was released showing bodies washed up on the Libyan shore. Reports indicate that a makeshift boat with 200 migrants on board had capsized during the night on Friday, 22 August, off the Libyan coast. Some 170 people are feared dead, all of African origin. Only a few days later the media announced the disappearance of another 500 migrants who had left from Egypt. According to the survivors, traffickers had deliberately sunk a boat loaded with hundreds of people.

These mass drownings add to an already heavy toll of maritime tragedies in the Mediterranean Sea. One of the most infamous incidents occurred off the Italian island of Lampedusa in October last year, when 366 migrants perished. The situation is reaching alarming proportions, and should sound a warning to the world.

The international community, through the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) – the United Nations’ (UN) body for maritime affairs – has an important role to play in preventing these tragedies. Yesterday, 25 September, was World Maritime Day. This year’s theme was ‘IMO Conventions: effective implementation.’ It is time for an effective and sustainable solution to be found. As Jean-Marc Ayrault, former French prime minister said, ‘compassion alone is not enough’ to prevent these high-risk migration attempts that so often end up as ‘convoys of death.’

Responsibility for the migrants’ deaths is shared by their destination countries and the countries where they come from. Immigration (destination) countries arguably bear responsibility because they have an obligation to monitor their maritime approaches and assist coastal transit countries in monitoring theirs. A destabilised country like Libya, which has become the main transit point of migrants to Europe – can argue that it should have a right to receive assistance from European countries in monitoring its coasts.

This does not absolve the transit countries of responsibility. Indeed, these states are primarily responsible for monitoring their territories – including at sea. A convoy of hundreds of people takes time to get moving, and should be noticed by local authorities. As long as authorities leave the traffickers to their business, the stream of deaths will continue.

Of course, these deaths also point to the economic and political reasons that drive migrants to seek a better life. It is often suggested that poverty is the main cause of migration by sea, although this is not always true. Many poor people would have difficulty paying the large sums of money required to reach their destination.

According to one Libyan smuggler who operates openly, the passage between the Libyan coast and the island of Lampedusa costs between US$900 and US$1 200 per person (whether this person is a newborn, child or adult). Additional expenses include ground transportation and accommodation.

Illegal migrants who cannot afford these expenses generally use another, equally dangerous, technique: they hide in a container, a hatch or compartment of a ship. These stowaways often die of hunger, thirst or disease, or suffocate before the end of the trip. It is under these conditions, for example, that two dead bodies were found in June this year onboard a vessel in the Durban harbour.

In some cases, migrants are reportedly thrown overboard alive or cast adrift on makeshift rafts. According to the IMO, most stowaways are from West Africa. In the period from 2011 to 2012, Ghana and Nigeria were vying for the top spot in terms of the number of stowaways discovered (around 260 and 250 individuals respectively, out of a total of 1 640 worldwide). In the same period, the port of Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire) was the most permeable, with about 76 cases.

Whatever the method used, these migrants are all seeking a better life outside their home country, where they might face political suppression, religious fundamentalism, civil wars, armed rebellions and ethnic segregation. For example, the majority of people killed in the tragedy of Lampedusa of 3 October 2013 were, according to a report from the International Red Cross, from Eritrea – a country under extreme autocratic rule.

The IMO does not have a specific convention dedicated to the smuggling of migrants by sea. The UN organisation has instead introduced guidelines of good conduct in favour of stowaways in the Convention on Facilitation of International Maritime Traffic 1965, which is primarily aimed at facilitating maritime traffic.

At present the IMO, in keeping with its World Maritime Day theme, is conducting an assessment of its conventions. It must assume ownership of the Protocol Against The Smuggling Of Migrants By Land, Sea And Air, supplementing the United Nations 2000 Convention against transnational organised crime. This protocol has been in force since 28 January 2014 and aims ‘to prevent and combat the smuggling of migrants, as well as to promote cooperation among State Parties to that end, while protecting the rights of smuggled migrants.’

African countries should implement policies that create better living conditions for their citizens, as well as undertake awareness campaigns around the risks attached to the illegal immigration. Transit countries should assume the responsibility for tracking and punishing traffickers, with or without the support of the destination countries.

Destination countries should equally increase their support to initiatives that aim to monitor the Mediterranean Sea, such as the Italian operation Mare Nostrum. Finally the IMO, in addition to its guidelines related to stowaways, should promote the aforementioned protocol. It is only once each party takes a share of the sacrifice that an effective solution can be found.

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