By Mirjam van Reisen* | IDN-InDepth NewsViewpoint
BRUSSELS (IDN) - The tragic loss of some 300 refugees off Lampedusa on October 3 gives public focus to the harsh and cruel reality facing thousands fleeing insecurity and oppression in the countries of their birth. A boat which traveled from Libya caught fire in close reach of the Italian coast. There were some 500 Eritreans on board, but only 147 were rescued according to media reports.
The large loss of life taking place in sight of the Italian beaches has shocked Italy, Europe and the world. It emphasizes the failure of Europe and Africa to protect the rights of refugees who embark on their perilous voyages believing that they have little choice. According to the UN, 30,100 migrants reached Italy by sea so far this year and some 7,500 Eritreans have been registered amongst them. October 5 is being observed as a day of mourning and Pope Frances has called for ‘a day of tears’.
The victims of the latest tragedy are largely from Eritrea. Eritrea is one of the most repressive and isolated African countries. It is estimated that some 5,000 Eritreans leave their country every month, most risking death for crossing the border without official sanction. A minority of these reach Europe. In reality most of the refugees remain in Africa, trying to survive until such time that they feel it is safe for them to return home. Many fall victim to criminal gangs and traffickers seeking to exploit their vulnerability. Thousands of Eritreans have been abducted with the assistance of Eritrean and Sudanese officials and taken to the Sinai where they are held captive, brutally treated, raped and tortured. Held for ransom for up to US$ 40,000, they risk death should this not be paid.
The EU still has a diplomatic mission in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, yet there has been an utter failure to bring about any change in this country. Being in an extremely strategic location on the Red Sea and with the high plateau overseeing the Arabic peninsula, the EU’s presence should be seen as essentially strategically motivated. The economic and political situation as well as the human rights record in this country are so tragic and dismal that it is hard to imagine what other reason could possibly motivate a presence of the EU.
People leave Eritrea in desperation and despite a shoot-to-kill policy at the border. They are smuggled and trafficked, often kidnapped along the way. In Libya they face detention, torture and hunger and risk being deported back to Eritrea. Many refugees are kidnapped and taken by force to Sinai where they face cruel torture and killing and where incredible sums of ransoms are demanded. In Egypt the situation has dramatically worsened since the political crisis there erupted and refugees are held in closed detention centers.
The Lampedusa tragedy emphasizes Europe’s failures to address the needs of the refugees. While the EU Frontex policy has been focused on keeping the refugees out, at all costs, no investments or policies have been made to secure the safety of the refugees who are trapped. Official policies that aim to prevent unauthorized migration into Europe are partly to blame.
“Italy’s immigration law is inhumane,” Giusi Nicolini, Lampedusa’s mayor, says. “Three fishing boats didn’t offer rescue and left the vessel to its destiny because our country has put fishermen who helped migrants at sea under trial accusing them of facilitating illegal immigration.” Being trapped and desperate they risk everything, including their lives, to try and reach Europe. Italy’s secret agreement with Libya to keep the refugees out is dismally failing, especially because Libya has no asylum-policy.
The EU has done far too little to bring coherence in its own policy. While the Italian policy is in flagrant contradiction of international law, the European Commission and Member States have entirely failed to establish a policy that is based on solidarity with the Southern Member States who carry the brunt of the refugee problem. The refugees are stuck in countries hardest hit by the financial crisis: Greece, Italy and Spain. Pope Francis, who recently visited Lampedusa, said “the recent tragedy is one of the results of the European lack of solidarity with countries affected by hard economic conjunction and political persecutions”.
European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Cecilia Malmström, recognizes the need to address such tragedies. “Europe has to step up its effort to prevent these tragedies and show solidarity both with migrants and with countries that are experiencing increasing migratory flows,” she said. She also expressed her support for the Italian authorities in the “enormous effort, including the apprehension of smugglers, they have undertaken over the last few months which have seen a vast increase in the influx of irregular migrants at their external borders.”
The Italian Vice Prime Minister emphasizes that Italy should not be left to manage the problem alone. “This is not an Italian tragedy. This is a European tragedy. Lampedusa has to be considered the frontier of Europe, not the frontier of Italy.”
Malmström is urging Europe to implement stronger common action and to not forget “that there are still many people in need of international protection”. The European Commissioner has also called upon Member States to do more for the resettlement of people in need of international protection.
The tragedy off Lampedusa is shocking. Yet it is only one part of a much larger tragedy taking place in Eritrea. Eritrean migrants have become a human commodity to be bought, sold and exploited for profit, even by their own government, as the latest UN Monitoring Report on Somalia and Eritrea points out. It thrives on the back of conflict and repression.
The ultimate solution lies in bringing democratic, accountable governance to Eritrea. Until this is realized, the EU has no other option but to grant asylum to Eritreans who are fleeing the country. As long as the Southern neighboring countries are not providing adequate protection, these refugees must be given a safe place in Europe.
The UN General Assembly discussed the issue of migration in New York at the High-level Dialogue on International Migration and Development on October 3-4. The UN Secretary General Ban-ki Moon stated in his report that “the plight of migrants unable to return to their country of origin as a result of humanitarian crises in their country of destination or transit has often been overlooked.”
According to Human Rights Watch, worldwide, some 80 percent of Eritrean asylum seekers “are granted some form of protection because of credible fears of persecution relating to punishment for evading indefinite military service in Eritrea and other widespread human rights abuses”.The tragedy in Lampedusa shows that the issue of legitimate asylum-seekers must be addressed and that Europe must offer protection and demonstrate internal solidarity and coherence in providing for this need. Without delay, the EU must provide protection and asylum to Eritrean refugees.
*Prof. Dr. Mirjam van Reisen, professor International Social Responsibility at the Tilburg University, is author of 'Human Trafficking in the Sinai: Refugees between life and death', Wolf Legal Publishers, 2012. She is founding director of the Europe External Policy Advisors (EEPA) in Brussels and member of the International Commission on Eritrean Refugees (ICER). [IDN-InDepthNews – October 5, 2013]
Picture: A boat carrying sub-Saharan African migrant workers arrives in Lampedusa from Tripoli Credit: Kate Thomas - IRIN
The writer's previous IDN articles: