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Friday, 4 October 2013

The bitter struggle for entering Europe claims again many, many lives of illegal African immigrants. Italy is right, when it asks the EU and its fellow EU-members for help.

Today was again a sad day for many African migrants, who hoped for a better life on European shores.

An overloaded, relatively small fishing boat coming from Libya in Africa, caught fire and subsequently capsized and sunk at less than 1 km (±1100 yards) from the shore of Lampedusa, a small Italian island close to Sicily. Of the approximately 500 passengers on the boat, according to Italian press agency ANSA, only 150 have been rescued.

Although the official death toll is now 134 people, according to Dutch media, the general expectation is that very few passengers have survived this accident. Most people on the boat were unable to swim, which turned the 800 meters to the coast of Lampedusa into an impregnable hurdle. That is why the other 350 passengers have probably drowned, unless for some lucky ones, who could reach the shore swimming or floating on pieces of wreckage.

The following story appeared in the Financial Times. As you might notice, this article has different numbers, concerning the death toll of the accident, than my aforementioned data. In this blog, I trust upon the data coming from the Dutch broadcaster BNR News Radio.

More than 90 African migrants have died and some 250 are still missing after an overcrowded fishing boat carrying them from Libya caught fire and sank close to the Italian island of Lampedusa early on Thursday.

“It’s horrific, like a cemetery, they are still bringing them out,” said Giusi Nicolini, mayor of Lampedusa as rescue workers laid out bodies of mostly Eritreans and Somalis on the quay.

Angelino Alfano, interior minister, said 93 bodies had been recovered by early afternoon, including three children and two pregnant women, and that 151 people had been saved. The fishing boat of some 20m in length was believed to be crammed with up to 500 people and had set out from the Libyan port of Misurata.

Italian divers reported seeing about 100 bodies inside and around the boat on the sea floor. A health worker co-ordinating the collection of the dead onshore said 47 were women.

Mr Alfano said the disaster was apparently caused after migrants set fire to a blanket to attract attention in the darkness but triggered a blaze from leaking fuel. Passengers rushed to one side of the boat and it capsized and sank.

Italian politicians were quick to use this latest of many similar disasters to urge the EU to intervene with a co-ordinated policy to stop human traffickers operating on the shores of north Africa.

António Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, expressed his dismay at “a rising global phenomenon of migrants and people fleeing conflict or persecution and perishing at sea”. UNHCR said 8,400 migrants and asylum-seekers had reached Europe by sea during the first half of this year.

“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,” Cecilia Malmström, EU home affairs commissioner, said.

[…] Italian politicians complained that Frontex, the EU agency co-ordinating border management and in charge of implementing Eurosur, had been hampered by EU austerity policies, just as Italy’s coastguard says its ability to monitor vast stretches of coastline has also been affected by budget cuts.

This is the next one in a long, long line of similar accidents concerning African and Arabian migrants, who want to reach Greece, Lampedusa, Melilla and Ceuta (both belonging to Spain) by boat. Combined, these incidents already claimed thousands of lives during the last few years.

The problem is that, for the Arab and African emigrants, the prize of reaching Europe and warranting a better future for themselves and their loved ones, still outweighs the very tangible risk of dying or failing to succeed during their attempt.

Although both groups have different goals, their means is the same: migration to prosperous and safe Europe. The Arabs do so to flee from the dangerous situations in Syria, Egypt and Libya, while the Africans are often looking for more economic prosperity.

Many families in Africa just badly need the money, which is sent by family members in Europe, in order to have a normal life and some personal wealth. Consequently some of the individual family members gamble litterally everything to reach the prosperous European shores.

Money sent by migrated family members is an important and growing economic factor in many developing countries. According to the World Bank, the developing world will receive $414 billion in remittances this year, which might grow to $540 billion in 2016.

The EU maintains a policy of deterance, detention and expulsion of unwanted African and Arab immigrants, through the deployment of coast guards and special asylums, sometimes even outside the official EU borders. However, this hardly stops immigrants from wanting to reach their goals. Many of these immigrants perish in the process.

While the EU, through the establishment of organizations, like the EASO (European Asylum Support Office) and Frontex (Frontières Extérieurs aka European Union agency for external border security), and the deployment of programs like Eurosur, tries to get control over the problems caused by the influx of asylum seekers, the reality is that these problems are hard to solve.

One of the biggest issues is that the balance between the North and South European countries (aka the PIIGS) is disrupted, when it comes to illegal migrants. While the South European countries get flooded by migrants from overseas, looking for asylum and economic prosperity, the North European countries experience only a fraction of the inconvenience, caused by this phenomenon. They don’t feel the sense of urgency that the South-European countries do. An additional problem is that when these illegal migrants get caught in other countries, they have to be sent back to the country of first entrance, according to 2008 regulation: again, the PIIGS.

On top of that, often the North European countries drag their feet to financially help the countries in need and instead point at the official EU bureaus for these issues and subsequently point at their “empty” wallets, while mumbling: ‘your immigrants, your problem’. This is an antisocial policy and besides that, quite naïve: therefore I fully understand the Italian cry for help and I have the opinion that this cry should not be overheard by the other European countries.

This is a problem, which should be solved by the EU as a whole; not just by the countries who experience the problems in daily practice, while being looked at commiseratingly by the rest of Europe. And instead of maintaining the NIMBY-approach of deterance and expulsion, the EU could better look at how to prevent this influx of migrants at the source, irrespective how hard this might seem initially.

Not by deterance and expulsion alone, but by offering better economic circumstances and more security in the homelands of the African and Arab migrants, through economic programs, joint ventures and through spurring peaceful negotiations between fighting factions in these countries of origin. 

Of course, these goals are hard to reach in the current times of economic hardship, but not impossible. There are already a substantial number of European SME (small and medium enterprise) companies, who open branches in Africa, thus bringing prosperity and progress to these countries in a non-colonial way, based on equivalence and mutual understanding and benefit.

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