Lampedusa and the plight of African boat migrants

People are crossing the Mediterranean in search of greater freedom. But at what cost?

The African Union (AU) Summit on 21 October declared 3 November a day of mourning across the continent. The day was to be observed by all its members in memory of the African migrants who have lost their lives in the Mediterranean Sea. About 365 people died when their boat caught fire and capsized off the Italian island of Lampedusa on 3 October 2013. Over 155 survived the ordeal. One week later, another boat capsized off Malta, 96km south-east of Lampedusa, leaving at least 27 people dead and over 200 rescued. Many others have drowned before these tragic events, and hundreds of others continue to be rescued while crossing the Mediterranean.

Lampedusa, an Italian city about 290km from the north coast of Africa, has become both a tragic symbol of and another wake-up call to the migratory dangers faced by Africans seeking asylum and greater economic security in Europe. Due to its proximity it is often a choice transit destination for boat migrants coming from Africa, particularly Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia.

The tragedies have again raised questions on the adequacy of immediate, short- and long-term policy responses to this immigration challenge. These questions revolve around the level of accountability and responsibility that individual countries and other concerned intergovernmental bodies, especially the European Union (EU) and the African Union (AU), are willing to take on. In addition, the tragedies have brought into sharp focus the treatment and protection of boat migrants, including the need to respect their dignity and human rights.

Questions around who is responsible for the protection of immigrants, in particular boat migrants, need urgent and concrete redress at the policy level, rather than more band-aid responses. However, the EU leaders who convened in Brussels for the EU Council meeting on 24–24 October to chart a way forward on immigration policy challenges failed to cement consensus on an EU-wide policy on the matter. The EU has yet to develop a coherent asylum policy across its 28-member union, from where most of the difficulties with comprehensive responses emanate.

Human rights watchdogs have lambasted the EU for this failure and for seemingly being more concerned with protecting its borders than with the lives and rights of people in search of protection and better opportunities. However, in its Conclusions the EU Council did agree to take action on the prevention of further tragedies and loss of lives at sea, ‘guided by the principle of solidarity and fair sharing of responsibility’.

Italy, Malta and Spain currently bear the reception burden of African asylum seekers and immigrants. These countries have decried the exorbitant cost of hosting the immigrants, not to mention the material and moral obligations in shouldering the burden. They are only barely starting to recover from the economic recession; consequently their reluctance to host the immigrants and demand for the equitable distribution of the immigration burden through quotas must be understood in this context. However, their human rights record in the treatment of asylum seekers, including at detention centres, has elicited condemnation.

The institutions mandated with implementation must also be reformed as a matter of urgency, as these are clearly not working. Frontex, the border agency tasked with managing the EU’s external borders, is said to have saved over 16 000 lives over the last two years, but has been underperforming due to limited funding. The controversial agency has now come under fire from human rights groups like Amnesty International for the repulsion operations it has undertaken at sea against asylum seekers. These ‘pre-emptive’ operations are in contravention of the Geneva Conventions related to the rights of individuals to seek and apply for asylum. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees has also urged EU countries to process asylum claims and reform their migratory policies.

In addition, policy cooperation among the countries of origin and receiving countries must be strengthened. The political framework of the Joint EU-Africa Strategic Partnership established in 2007 to enhance relations across the two continents in dealing with migration, among other issues, appears to be failing in this particular aspect. It is therefore crucial that future action plans, particularly under the Partnership’s theme of ‘migration, mobility and employment’, be bolstered. These issues should also form part of the central discussions during the April 2014 Africa–EU Summit in Brussels.

Reactions from the countries of origin most affected by the tragedies have also brought into question the level of accountability individual governments are willing to assume. Eritrean Ambassador Girma Asmeron in his speech at the extraordinary session of the AU Assembly on 12 October demanded answers ‘from Africa and the whole world’. Among others, he wanted to know: ‘Who is behind these tragedies? Is it the two or three NGOs or CSOs that are opening shop all over Africa under different names and pretexts? Is it the intelligence and security organs of the Big Powers who are using all types of tactics and methods to execute their regime change agenda? Why are lots of African youths taking these dangerous land and sea routes? Is it because of poverty, persecution, human rights violations or conflicts?’

However, the ambassador did not ask why many of the victims were citizens of his own country, or what his government was doing to address the root causes of the mass migration from Eritrea, keeping in mind that political persecution in Eritrea remains among the highest in the world. This tendency to shift blame to anyone and everyone else, including imagined threats, so often a characteristic of poor leadership, will not help in solving matters, apart from providing a distraction from the real issues.

Some of the concerns the ambassador raised do warrant further investigation, especially those relating to the root causes of the problem. Indeed, while youths constitute the majority of Eritrea’s population and half of them remain unemployed, the problem is not unique to their country. The AU, in its commemorative declaration, called on Africans and the youth in particular ‘to reflect on appropriate actions to be taken with a view of finding a lasting solution to this persistent problem’.

Africa and the global community must move beyond rhetoric and commit to policies and programmes aimed at addressing the challenges facing the youth, who form the majority of Africa’s migratory flows. Youth unemployment and high poverty levels are often the cause of most of these migrations. There is already an abundance of policies aimed specifically at addressing youth unemployment and poverty eradication, but the commitment and leadership in seeing through their implementation seems to be lacking. This is therefore a challenge for which the continent must take ownership and responsibility.

Finally, the criminal dimension of migration, including elements of human trafficking and organised crime, must also be tackled. These networks, especially in North Africa, collude with the mafia and other human smuggling networks in Europe, and must be dealt with more robustly. Cooperation between the AU and EU through information sharing and capacity building for border policing along the Northern Africa border corridor should also therefore be improved.

And so, even as we remember the victims and sympathise with the level of despair that often drive migrants to risk their lives in search of freedom, whether out of fear or want, it is important that those in leadership not just pay lip service to migration challenges but also seek to address the concerns of migrants, especially for the sake of those still facing the same fate in crossing the Mediterranean.

Irene Ndungu, Coordinator, ACoC Secretariat, Conflict Management and Peace Building Division, ISS Pretoria

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