WORDS, FOOTAGE AND IMAGES BY LIVIA ALBECK-RIPKA
Hamiad stepped off the ship with the child in his arms, safe for the first time in days. She wasn’t his. He had saved her when the fishing boat went down, taking with it her father, mother, brother and more than 100 other souls. Her real name unknown, Hamiad named her Hayat, meaning “life” in Arabic. She clung to him as they disembarked. They had left Syria and her terrors behind. This was their new home.
Mere days later, near the end of 2014, another ship carrying 319 desperate people reached dry land after eight turbulent days at sea. Starving and thirsty, some people had drunk their own urine, been raped, tortured and beaten. Others had helplessly watched their families drown. All had risked everything to be smuggled over land and water without regard for their rights.
But as the Comandante Borsini moored at the dock, it was clear that it was just another day’s work; police officers smoked cigars and took photos, the Red Cross swiftly pitched its medical tent, and officers in white protective medical gear waved from the deck. The crisis had become routine.
Currently, there are more globally displaced people than since the end of WWII. Some 51 million of them.
Wars in Syria, Iraq and Gaza and unrest and poverty in the Horn of Africa and West Africa have meant millions are left without access to education, work, permanent shelter, and sometimes, food and water, in what the the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has called an unprecedented humanitarian emergency.
“As many people are forcibly displaced today as the entire populations of medium-to-large countries such as Colombia or Spain, South Africa or South Korea," says UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres. The UNHCR has “never had to address so much human misery in its 64-year history,” he adds.
While most refugees wait in the squalor of refugee camps, those who cross land borders, walls, barbed wire fences and oceans do so with the conviction that, perhaps somewhere, a better life awaits. With the conviction that it will be better to die trying, than from cold, starvation, disease, or at the hands of militants and thugs. Even though only a small fraction attempt migration, the exodus of 2014 outgrew the Arab Spring’s, with approximately 350,000 people crossing oceans worldwide, and nearly half of these via the Mediterranean Sea.
The journey, explains Yodit Abraha, an Ethiopian migrant and psychologist working with refugees in Sicily, is long, arduous and terrifying. First, migrants must cross overland, shadowed along the way by smugglers and their accomplices who often kidnap, rape and torture them for a reward.
“If you are very lucky, the voyage only lasts five to six months, you only cross one border, get arrested once, beaten for a month…
Sometimes, it lasts for one or two years,” she says. “There is no ethical code.”
“My life in Libya was terrible,” says Mamadou Sowe, a 27-year-old Gambian refugee who spent almost two years in transit.
“I was kidnapped there, beaten… they killed my fellow Africans,” he says, describing how he watched a child being murdered when he was unable to produce the money the smugglers demanded.
Like Sowe, most migrants come via anarchic Libya, paying anywhere from $200 to $2500 USD—depending on social class—to be smuggled onto a ship bound for Europe. Knowing boats only have to reach 12 nautical miles from the Libyan coast to receive help in international waters, smugglers overcrowd old fishing vessels, where those in the hold sometimes die of asphyxiation and are beaten or thrown overboard if they try to reach the deck for air.
The wealthier, many of whom are middle-class Syrians, pay more to ensure their place above sea level. If the boats sink, as they often do, those underneath have little chance of survival. In 2014, approximately 3400 migrants died trying to cross the Mediterranean, but many more remain uncounted.
“We tried our best to travel to Europe in a legal way, but no matter how hard we tried, we were not allowed,” says Mohamed*, a 47-year-old Syrian refugee. Having attempted to apply through the German, Belgian and Swedish embassies in Cairo, he and his family eventually gave up and arranged to be smuggled by boat to Sicily.
Mohamed is just one amongst the approximate 200,000 migrants forced to access a criminal network in their attempts to reach Europe this year. Around 80 per cent of these “irregular” migrants are genuine asylum seekers, explains human rights lawyer Fulvio Vassallo, yet with few other options, they are forced into illegally crossing borders and attempting the perilous journey across the sea. Classified as “illegal” and “irregular”, these routes are in fact the regular and only course of action for most migrants, who cannot access the European Union without a visa, and who are usually rejected when they do apply.
"We have ignorant, closed-minded politicians,” says Vassallo. “They see migrants as illegal, so most of the time they have to try to enter like illegal migrants.”
Excluding limited resettlement opportunities, there are provisions for family members of refugees to join relatives already in European countries. But even in these cases, there are many obstacles. Family reunion can require migrants to wait eight to nine months—time that asylum seekers do not have due to the instability in their home countries.
It is undeniable, say The European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) that preventing people fleeing war and persecution from reaching Europe safely fuels the people-smuggling market:
“In the ’20s, mafia groups celebrated the prohibition of alcohol sale in the US, as they could take up that profitable underground market. Today, Libya’s most successful smuggler presents himself as a businessman. The commodity is no longer alcohol but the promise of safety in a place free from war and oppression.”
Once in European territory, in accordance with international and domestic law, refugees are granted protection. Focusing on reinforced border controls and agreements with third countries to keep refugees out of the EU, while refusing to open up channels for them to get here in a legal and safe way is “missing the point,” say the ECRE.
“The smuggling business will continue to flourish, and refugees will have to keep putting their lives in the hands of these criminals, as long as smugglers have the monopoly to give people in need of international protection their only chance to reach it.”
As of August 2014, only 7,000 refugees referred by UNHCR for resettlement had left for new homes in their destination countries, despite Amnesty International and other human rights groups repeatedly calling on the EU and member states to open safe and legal routes. In Syria alone, nearly 380,000 people have been identified as in need of resettlement by the UN refugee agency, yet excluding Germany, the EU has pledged to resettle only 0.17 per cent of them. Of the international resettlement pledges already made, just a fraction have been fulfilled so far.
“The apathy we have witnessed from some of the world’s wealthiest countries has been exacerbated by scare-mongering over rising immigration levels across Europe,” explains Amnesty International’s Head of Refugee and Migrants’ Rights Sherif Elsayed-Ali.
In a recent European Commission poll, 75 per cent of Italians said they felt negatively about immigration of people from outside the EU, coinciding with a swing toward right-wing politics across Europe.
“Poor migrants are the perfect political scapegoats – they have no money, no influence and they can’t vote. So if you’re a government whose policies are letting people down, you can blame it all on immigration,” says Elsayed-Ali.
“It’s a very perverted situation,” says Abraha.
“After all this crime, they get the documents, and we support them through a process of integration, so what is the point? It’s the smugglers who kill them, or the governments of their own countries. But on the other side, Europe contributes. They shoot, but the guns come from here.”
*Last name excluded to protect identity.
On October 11 of 2013, Mohammed Kazkji struggled to stay afloat in the Mediterranean Sea, praying for rescue amongst the drowning and the dead. The 22-year-old was just one of hundreds who had boarded an overcrowded boat in Libya, bound for the promise of Europe.
When his vessel capsized off the coast of Malta, it was the second such incident in just over a week. On October 3, a boat carrying more than 500 people had sunk in Italian waters. The death of more than 400 people was enough to catch the attention of the media. Hundreds of reporters descended on the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa, where the first shipwreck had occurred. The public was horrified. Europe’s politicians struggled to find a unified response. Italy soon launched a search and rescue mission, Mare Nostrum.
As a response to dramatic events of 2013, Mare Nostrum however had a limited lifespan and in December 2014 was superseded by the scaled down EU-run operation, Triton. At a third of the cost, Triton is coordinated by the border control organsation Frontex, whose mandate is to control Europe’s land and maritime borders in support of countries facing what they term “migratory pressure.” Patrolling coastal rather than international waters with far fewer vessels, it became clear that Triton could not keep up with Mare Nostrum's efforts, when yet another disaster occured in February of 2015, claiming more than 300 lives.
“The latest Lampedusa tragedy laid bare yet again the woeful inadequacy of the European Union’s current border control approach to the spiralling humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean... without more resources from member states for search and rescue, more people will die on the high seas,”
says John Dalhuisen of Amnesty International. The organisation says the European Comission's 13.7 million euro emergency funding pledge is not a sufficient solution to protect and save lives.
Established in 2004 following the free movement that resulted from the Schengen Agreement, Frontex, according to its website, “promotes, coordinates and develops European border management in line with the EU fundamental rights charter.”
But Borderline Europe, a non-profit which works to “break the silence” around the EU’s locked borders, describes a situation where the The European Commission, as well as many national governments, count on Frontex to follow military principles and “ignores the thousands of victims created by their border actions.” Human rights are consistently violated at the external maritime and land borders of the EU, say the group, including extended detainment and imprisonment, degrading conditions in refugee camps and deportation.
In late 2014, 50 human rights associations launched Frontexit—a campaign calling for the defence of migrants' rights at the external borders of the European Union. Its dual objective is to “inform a wide audience about the impacts of Frontex operations in terms of human rights, and to denounce these impacts to the political representatives who are directly involved.”
Those who have died or gone missing in the Mediterranean prove how much we need a fundamentally new approach to asylum and migration policies, focusing less on the “so-called security of our borders” and more on “human rights and human dignity,” say the group, describing European migration policies which treat migrants as “enemies.”
“Frontex is a key player in this policy and has huge budgetary means, as well as military, and legal status which allows it to sign agreements with other countries. Frontex is without transparency, with little of the democratic control of civil society, euro-deputies or other European methods of control,” says Frontexit representative Eva Ottavy.
Triton, warn Amnesty International, is testimony to EU member states’ continuing preoccupation with “protecting borders over people.”
“As the world faces the worst refugee crisis since the WWII, the EU and its member states must urgently and collectively ensure robust search and rescue capabilities, to plug the imminent gap in these life saving operations,” says director of their European Institutions Office Nicolas J. Beger.
Wardo Suliman peered up from behind her white medical mask, all but her deep brown eyes obscured.
“I think this is Italy?” hesitated the 16-year-old, having spent an exhausting eight days at sea. Suliman knew she was in Europe, but wasn’t exactly sure where. She didn’t have friends or family in the continent, and had endured horrors to make it across the ocean to safety.
The route for someone like Wardo Suliman is horrific, explains Abraha, who has worked with migrants for 20 years. The more recent arrivals, she says, show increased mental health issues, a lack of trust and extreme fragility, coinciding directly with the evolution of people smuggling. She describes once-capable people so shattered by their experiences trying to reach Europe that they are rendered paralysed by fear and mistrust.
“America is a place of immigrants who had the possibility to contribute and to realise their dreams. While here—their potential strengths and minds, that could actually help countries grow—we prefer to kill them before.”
Moreover, says Abraha, states could benefit economically by opening legal routes as the money which migrants are willing to pay smugglers could be directly translated into a form of entry tax.
“It’s the state that would gain from this,” she says, “but we prefer to sustain an illegal system.”
In a makeshift reception centre in Palermo, a group of young men in their twenties sit around in a sparse loungeroom, watching television. This is one of the only ways they can connect with their former lives in Africa, says Kobena Quattara Ibrahima, who works with the new arrivals.
Ibrahima describes how difficult integration is for many African migrants, given their lack of education and what they have endured to reach Europe. Having himself migrated from the Ivory Coast in 2009, Ibrahima is now head of the foreign student body at Palermo University in Sicily. But of the thousands who came during his period of exile, he says he is one of the very few to have completed university and found full time employment.
“It feels like home, now, because I’m integrated,” he says. But he expresses concern about the future of this latest wave of migrants. “Educating them means giving them the knowledge that in Africa, they don’t have. To study is to contribute here,” he says.
Part of the reason integration is so difficult is due to government fear mongering around their perceived threat to security, says Judith Glietze, one of the founders of Borderline Europe.
“Migrants are not a security problem, but they are seen as a security problem: they need work, they need assistance, they need, they need... But it’s not true,”
she says of the fortress mentality. The contradiction, says Glietze, is that migrants can contribute enormously, when given the chance, citing Germany’s aging population as the type of problem which could be solved by letting migrants in.
Having landed on European soil after a grueling journey across the sea, 23-year-old Mohammed Abdul is still smiling. Having given up everything but the clothes on their back, resilience is the sole currency of many of these new arrivals, who after being fed, are sent by bus to reception centres in Sicily, where they will be given two minutes each to contact their families with the news that they are alive. Most will then go on to secondary reception centres, where they will wait until they can apply for asylum and work towards integration by finding employment and permanent housing.
“In one year from now,” Abdul says, “I expect many things,” adding that he dreams of one day becoming a doctor.
His friend, Abdelsad Abdileh, eagerly pipes up. “I want to become a politician,” laughs the 26-year-old, “I want to replace Angela Merkel.”
Livia Albeck-Ripka is an Australian journalist, editor and copywriter on a fellowship with Fabrica Research Centre in Treviso, Italy. This slow-journalism project is the result of 10 days in Sicily spent researching migration to the EU, which included boarding one of Triton's first missions and witnessing the arrival of hundreds of migrants in Augusta in November 2014.
Statistics via United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), Amnesty International, International Organization for Migration (IOM), Borderline Europe and Save the Children Italia.