For thousands of refugees from Africa and the Middle East, the Mediterranean Sea is a gateway of peace and freedom to start all over — far away from their home countries that are stricken by repression, violence, and war.
In recent years, Spain, Italy, and Greece closed their borders to make it almost impossible for refugees to enter the European Union. High steel walls and increased police forces are additional obstacles besides the erratic nature of the sea. Refugees take huge risks when they choose to flee their war-stricken homes. Human and organ trafficking, rape, and starvation are common companions on their long way to freedom.
On October 3, 2013 a boat carrying 545 refugees from Somalia and Eritrea sank off the coast of Italian island of Lampedusa. There are no exact numbers on how many people died when the ship capsized, but it is assumed that the number is between 350 and 360. The Italian coast guard was able to save 155 refugees.
There are daily reports of ships wrecking on the coasts of Lampedusa and Malta, but this tragedy received a high amount of international news coverage sparking a debate on how the EU needs to change its refugee policies. Eighteen months have passed and the EU is still failing in enacting any significant legislation that secures the rights of refugees.
In the night of April 14, I read another news report that a boat sank off the coast of Libya, and it is believed that 400 people died. Five days later, another ship capsized with 700 refugees believed dead according to UNHCR, the refugee agency of the UN. In 2014, 2,447 refugees died on route compared to 1,710 in the first four months of 2015 alone, marking this a new humanitarian crisis that needs to be addressed.
Since then, the international press is reporting more extensively on the deaths of refugees from Syria, Eritrea, and Somalia among others, with an attempt to urge government officials from the EU to address the problem.
In 1997, the European Union tightened measures in controlling the waves of migrants entering Europe with the Dublin regulation. The procedure regulates asylum applications in all member states. When a refugee applies for asylum in a member state, the authorities will file the available information about the person, as well as his or her fingerprints. If the asylum seeker decides to go to another EU country and requests asylum again, the authorities of the latter can refuse to process the application and can go as far as deport the person to the former country.
Let’s imagine how that procedure unfolds for Italy. Since many refugees enter Europe through Italy (remember Spain and Greece are pretty much closed up by now), Italian authorities register their fingerprints. Many asylum seekers see Italy as a temporary solution, trying to move to Germany, Sweden, or the Netherlands. However, the Dublin regulation causes an imbalance of asylum claims in Italy.
Solely the Italian government, who are incapable of accepting any more asylum seekers, handles the mass influx of refugees. The Italian society reacts with growing hostility against African immigrants, and refugees cut off their fingertips to avoid the storage of their DNA.
The cross-national marine operation Mare Nostrum that made the rescues of thousands of refugees possible ran out in 2014. In the case of the Lampedusa sinking in 2013, Italian authorities went so far in charging the survivors with illegal immigration and demanded their deportation.
I hope that the latest tragedies will ultimately lead to direct EU action, which should lead to a more humane treatment of asylum seekers and refugees alike. Otherwise, the Mediterranean Sea will soon look more like a mass burial site than a popular holiday destination.
While I’m not proclaiming in adopting an open border policy in Europe, all member states have to revise their asylum policies and refrain from putting more dangerous barriers in place. Moreover, the Dublin-regulation needs an overhaul that might provide a ratio of distributing asylum seekers based on GDP and total population to EU member states.
On April 23, 2015, an emergency EU summit, comprised of heads of state and government officials, failed to address the surge of migrant deaths and focused more on sugarcoating the current marine operation Triton, which succeeded Mare Nostrum earlier this year. While the EU member states agreed to increase the resources for the multinational operation, it still won’t reach the Libyan coast. Instead it will be used as a means of controlling the borders. The European Union refuses to take full responsibility in stopping the mass killings and continues to enforce and expand a strict asylum policy.
On the same day, it was reported that another boat capsized. I’m tired of hearing refugees say that they take the risks of drowning, starvation or organ trafficking, because it doesn’t matter if they die on their own or on foreign soil due to the violence of war.
Their lives matter.
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