February and March have been deadly months for migrants traveling through the Mediterranean Sea, continuing the history of what has been called one of the most dangerous travel routes on earth.
Within the past two months, at least 100 people were feared dead or missing on their various journeys after the boats carrying them sank, while about 1,000 others were rescued by Italian Navy and sea guards, according to media reports. Some other migrants made it safely to Italy on their own.
Despite the terrifying danger of this sea route, migrants from various countries continue to view the perilous peregrination on the Mediterranean Sea as their best route to a better life abroad.
What many would consider a suicidal journey others see as their last hope for a better life. Many travelers on the route were unable to secure visas from their home countries to travel by air or road.
Even keen observers have lost count of the number of boat mishaps on the water.
The death toll on the Mediterranean Sea over the years is such that even keen observers have lost count of the number of boat mishaps on the water.
The Missing Migrants Project, an initiative of the International Organization for Migration, attempts to keep a known death toll: “In 2015, over 4,000 refugees and migrants are known to have died at sea while trying to reach Europe, and the death toll has continued to mount since. The majority of these people are not identified and in many cases bodies are never found. In each case, a family is left in a state of ambiguous loss, unable to fully grieve for their loved one. Despite the magnitude of unidentified deaths and the suffering of families, states have done little to address this humanitarian imperative.”
From 2014 to the present, the Missing Migrants Project has recorded 53,908 lives lost on the sea route. It identified the Central Mediterranean route as the deadliest path, where at least 20,580 people have died since 2014 and noted the remains of 23,017 others who lost their lives during migration have not been recovered.
The February and March tragedies happened at a time that Tunisia, a North African country bordered by the Mediterranean Sea, is in the news over the migrant crisis. Many migrants in the country have fled the land for fear of their lives after a racist backlash worsened by comments made by the country’s president, Kais Saied, Feb. 21.
At a National Security Council meeting, Saied said “hordes of irregular migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa” had come to Tunisia, “with all the violence, crime and unacceptable practices that entails” and that the “unnatural” situation was part of a ploy to “change the demographic make-up” and turn Tunisia into “just another African country that doesn’t belong to the Arab and Islamic nations anymore.”
Saied’s view was criticized by human rights organizations.
Heba Morayef, Amnesty International’s director for the Middle East and North Africa, said Saied was only trying to find excuses for his failure and has ended up stoking ethnic tensions.
“President Saied must retract his comments and order investigations to clearly signal that anti-Black racist violence will not be tolerated,” she said. “The president must stop finding scapegoats for Tunisia’s economic and political woes. The community of Black African migrants in Tunisia is now gripped by fear of assault or being arbitrarily arrested and summarily deported.”
“The community of Black African migrants in Tunisia is now gripped by fear of assault or being arbitrarily arrested and summarily deported.”
She added that following the outcry by the international community, authorities in Tunisia had sought to downplay or deny the animosity generated by racist comments and attacks. Morayef challenged the country’s government to “prioritize the investigation of incidents of police violence against Black migrants, put an immediate end to forcible returns currently under way and prevent any further racially motivated attacks by gangs or state agents.”
Amnesty International said it “interviewed 20 people in Tunis, among them five asylum seekers and 15 undocumented migrants from Cameroon, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, Guinea and Ivory Coast,” who “were all attacked by mobs, and in at least three cases, the police were present but failed to intervene to stop the attacks or arrest the perpetrators.”
It added that “witnesses described to Amnesty International how, after the president’s speech, Tunisian men, sometimes armed with batons and knives, had taken to the streets of the capital and attacked them or raided their houses.”
As an example, on Feb. 24, Manuela D, 22, a Cameroonian asylum seeker, “was stabbed in the chest, causing horrific injuries. She was attacked by a group of six men who shouted racist insults at her. She … heard voices shouting, in French, ‘Go back home, you gang of Blacks, we don’t want you here.’”
Another example from Amnesty International: Aziz, 21, from Sierra Leone, “who said that a few days after the president’s speech, 10 Tunisians stormed his house in Ariana, broke the door, stole his things and forced him and his family out, saying, ‘All Black people must leave.’”
“Poor people who migrate today are demonized and forced to risk their lives.”
Lynn Tramonte, director of the Ohio Immigrant Alliance, said of this news: “I feel sick that people are forced to migrate this way. Migration is as old as time. It’s inherent in the human condition. We migrate for food, shelter, to avoid danger. We migrate to improve our conditions. But instead of recognizing this reality, poor people who migrate today are demonized and forced to risk their lives. Rich people are allowed to migrate on planes and cross borders freely. There’s so much wrong with this system.”
Tunisia is far from alone in this problem, she added. “You see this in Mauritania, too, and they actually attack citizens of their own country. The Berber elite there has been carrying out an ethnic cleansing against Black Mauritanians for decades. In the 1980s and 1990s, it was genocide. Now it is apartheid. But it’s still about Arabizing the nation, despite the fact that Black ethnic groups have lived on that land for centuries.”
In Italy, which shares a maritime border with African countries like Libya and is a gateway to people migrating toward Europe, opinions remain divided on whether the Italian government is welcoming and helpful or antagonistic toward migrants.
While the exploitation of resources and people drive many to leave their homes, racism in government policies keeps them from traveling safely, Tramonte said. “My friend Abdoul Mbow wrote this article in the Columbus Dispatch about people journeying from Mauritania through South and Central America to arrive at the U.S. border, only to face rejection or jail. He asked people why they are risking it all to make this journey and they told him, ‘We are already dead.’
“The hopelessness they must feel, combined with the bravery they show in making a last attempt to have a life, it’s so big,” she said, adding, “No one should have to risk their life in order to survive. Those of us who live in countries that exploit poor people and their land and resources, who refuse to give them safe pathways to travel, should be ashamed — and agitated into action. We must change our governments’ approach to migrants and migration to welcome people with dignity.”
The issue remains divisive across Europe, as evidenced by the experience of Gary Lineker, former English soccer star who works as a freelancer for the BBC. In response to new laws proposed by the British government against migrants or refugees, Lineker tweeted that the government’s action is reminiscent of the Nazi era.
“There is no huge influx. We take far fewer refugees than other major European countries,” he said. “This is just an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the ’30s, and I’m out of order?”
The furor that followed the tweet led to Lineker being taken off air by the BBC. Some of Lineker’s BBC colleagues abstained from work in solidarity with him. However, an agreement between Lineker and BBC management has since allowed him to return to work at Britain’s flagship media outfit.
Anthony Akaeze is a Nigerian-born freelance journalist who lives in Houston. He covers Africa for BNG.
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