Tag: European Union

African migrants in Europe: Debunking the myths

Migrants wait in a boat during a rescue operation on April 15 2015 off the coast of Sicily. (Pic: AFP / Handout)
Migrants wait in a boat during a rescue operation on April 15 2015 off the coast of Sicily. (Pic: AFP / Handout)

The death toll from the capsizing of a boat carrying migrants off the Libyan coast on the weekend has hit 800, and could reach 950, according to latest reports, piling pressure on European governments to respond to the rising migrant boat tragedies in the Mediterranean.

Amnesty International described the capsizing as a “man-made tragedy that could well have been avoided”, and along with other humanitarian groups is calling for increased sea patrols.

As springtime brings calmer seas, there is likely to be an increase in the number of crossing attempts – and more deaths. Already, more than 1 600 migrants have died in the Mediterranean since the beginning of 2015.

But looking at the broader social, economic and demographic forces driving the crossings, sadly, the drownings are likely to be the new normal.

We debunk some of the myths surrounding the Africa-Europe sea migrations, and give you the two graphs you need to know:

More sea patrols will lead to less deaths

In 2013, when 350 migrants died under similar circumstances, the Italian government put into place a navy search-and-rescue operation known as Mare Nostrum, which patrolled the Mediterrenean and responded to distress calls.

But it soon emerged that search-and-rescue actually seemed to be inadvertently leading to more deaths – cynically, human traffickers responded to the patrols by packing even more migrants off, knowing that they would be rescued in case things go awry.

In the past year alone, there have been a four-fold increase in drownings, and Italian authorities have rescued about 100 000 migrants at sea.

Italy scaled back the mission after failing to persuade its European partners to help meet its operating costs of $9.7 million per month, and now does not do search-and-rescues directly, but asks merchant ships in the area to respond to the calls.

But with the latest tragedy, the calls to reinstitute Mare Nostrum are getting louder. According to the statement from Amnesty, the boat had sent a request for help to the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Rome; the centre requested a Portuguese merchant vessel to attend the call, but it did not get there in time.

German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung at the weekend denounced the EU as a ”union of murderers”, accepting the deaths of refugees in the hope of discouraging other refugees from following them.

Europe is overwhelmed by the flood of African migrants at its doorstep

The tragic drownings in the Mediterranean get much media coverage, but African migrants are small fraction of the people trying to get to Europe every year.

Data from the UN’s World Migration Report shows that just 12% of migrants into Europe are from Africa, the majority (52%) are from within Europe itself, largely Eastern Europe and the Balkan states.

Even among the victims of human traffickers into Europe, the UN’s Global Trafficking in Persons report shows that 17% are from Africa, mainly West Africa (14%) and 3% coming from the rest of sub-Saharan Africa – nearly two thirds are from Eastern Europe.

Immigrants are unwanted and not needed

Despite the popular calls to stop the migrations, Europe is currently ageing and shrinking fast, and so has a high demand for people. Germany and Italy are the second and third-oldest countries in the world at the moment, with half the population older then 44 years.

On the other hand, Africa is young and growing, with nearly every country in sub-Saharan Africa having a median age younger than 20.

Furthermore, tough austerity measures in much of southern Europe creates a demand for cheaper workers, and Africa can easily fill that gap by hopping across the sea. In Italy, for instance, 85% of Cape Verdean immigrants are women, mostly working as domestic workers.

But the politics in Europe has swung to favour the far right, anti-immigrant parties. In France, far-right National Front (FN) has had its best showing in years winning 12 French towns, two seats in the Senate, and top position in the European Parliament elections in 2014 elections.

The populist anti-immigrant Finns party, formerly the True Finns came second in general elections on Sunday and is likely to be part of the new government in Helsinki. In the UK, the anti-immigrant UK Independence Party (Ukip) is also gaining some ground.

So there’s a strong demographic and economic demand for immigrants, but loud political opposition to it. Will it mean the end of the flow of immigrants? No. It only means that the market for illegal, rather than legal, migration will grow, and sadly, the drownings in the Mediterranean are likely to become the new normal.

Migrants are desperately poor

Despite the common portrayal of the migrants as desperately fleeing poverty, the data suggests otherwise.

Although it appears they are generally less wealthy and less skilled compared to the migrants who directly go to France, UK and the US on student and work visas, they are rarely from the most destitute families.

Research indicates that migrants tend to be from moderate socio-economic backgrounds and are often from urban areas in their countries of origin. A substantial proportion has secondary or higher education.

With human traffickers charging between $700 and $3 000 for a place on one of the Mediterranean boats, it’s not the kind of fee poor people can afford.

Rather than fleeing poverty, migrants tend to move either “because of a general lack of perspectives for self-realisation in their origin countries and the concomitant inability to meet their personal aspirations,” says this research paper, partly driven by a greater awareness of the possibility out there, mediated by the recent explosion in mobile and Internet access.

It’s a man’s world

Although women and girls comprise the vast majority of detected victims worldwide, women are also prosecuted and convicted of the trafficking crime far more often than for most other types of crime.

Some 30% of convicted traffickers worldwide between 2010 and 2012 were women, whereas the average female conviction rate for other crimes is usually in the region of 10-15%.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said many of them act as guards, recruiters and money collectors, to gain the trust of victims; women involved in human trafficking operations are often in close contact with the victims, whether it is recruiting them, deceiving them or transporting them.

Women are also more likely to be convicted of trafficking. Given that many investigations are based on victims’ testimonies, these low-ranking female traffickers who have contact with victims are most likely to be identified and convicted, while the men at the top of the chain are rarely seen or known by the victims.

Christine Mungai for MG Africa.

700 migrants feared dead in Mediterranean shipwreck off Libya

Rescued migrants watch as the body of person who died after a fishing boat carrying migrants capsized off the Libyan coast, is brought ashore along with 23 others. (Pic: AFP)
Rescued migrants watch as the body of person who died after a fishing boat carrying migrants capsized off the Libyan coast, is brought ashore along with 23 others. (Pic: AFP)

A major rescue operation is under way in the Mediterranean after as many as 700 migrants are feared to have drowned just outside Libyan waters, in what could prove to be the worst disaster yet involving migrants being smuggled to Europe.

Italian coastguards have retrieved 49 survivors so far and about 20 bodies, according to the interior ministry, after the boat went down overnight about 60 miles (96km) off the Libyan coast and 120 miles (193km) south of the Italian island of Lampedusa.

The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, told the Guardian that up to 700 may remain in the water, according to numbers supplied by a survivor. The accident happened after the migrants saw a merchant ship in the distance and scrambled to attract its attention, over-balancing the fishing boat in which they were travelling.

Barbara Molinario, a spokeswoman for UNHCR in Rome, said: “They wanted to be rescued. They saw another ship. They were trying to make themselves known to it.”

If confirmed, Sunday morning’s accident means that at least 1 500 migrants have died so far in 2015 while on route to Europe – at least 30 times higher than last year’s equivalent figure, which was itself a record. It comes just days after 400 others drowned last week in a similar incident.

The deaths prompted fresh calls for Europe to reinstate full-scale search-and-rescue operations in the Mediterranean. Last October, the EU opted not to replace the Italian-run operation Mare Nostrum, which saved about 100 000 lives last year, amid fears that it was encouraging smugglers and migrants to organise more trips to Europe.

Pope Francis, an outspoken advocate for greater European-wide participation in rescue efforts, reiterated his call for action during mass on Sunday after learning of the latest disaster.

“They are men and women like us – our brothers seeking a better life, starving, persecuted, wounded, exploited, victims of war,” he said from St Peter’s Square.

Save the Children, one of the primary aid agencies working with migrants arriving in Italy, called on EU leaders to hold crisis talks in the next 48 hours and to resume search-and-rescue operations.

‘Europe cannot look the other way’
“It is time to put humanity before politics and immediately restart the rescue,” the organisation said in a statement. “Europe cannot look the other way while thousands die on our shores.”

Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi, called for an emergency meeting at Palazzo Chigi with top government ministers, including foreign minister Paolo Gentiloni, on Sunday to discuss the crisis. The EU commission for migration, Dimitris Avramopoulos, is due in Italy on Thursday.

But the huge rise in deaths in 2015, and the largely similar levels of arrivals in Italy, suggest the tactic has not worked. In Tripoli on Saturday, a smuggler told the Guardian he was not aware of Mare Nostrum in the first place, nor knew that it had finished.

“I’ve not heard of that. What is that – from 2009?” said the smuggler, who says his network organises 20 trips a week during the busy summer months. “Many people would go on the boats, even if they didn’t have any rescue operations.”

Migrants interviewed this week in Libya, the main launching pad for those seeking to reach Europe, say the demand will continue despite the deaths. Mohamed Abdallah, a 21-year-old from Darfur who fled war at home to find another war in Libya, said he could not stay in Libya, nor return to Sudan.

“There is a war in my country, there’s no security, no equality, no freedom,” Abdallah said. “But if I stay here, it’s just like my country … I need to go to Europe.”

In Misrata, a major Libyan port, coastguards told the Guardian that the smuggling trips would continue to rise because Libyan officials were woefully under-resourced.

In all of western Libya, the area where the people-smugglers operate, coastguards have just three operational boats. Another is broken, and four more are in Italy for repairs. Libyans say they have been told they will not be returned until after the conclusion of peace talks between the country’s two rival governments.

“There is a substantial increase this year,” said Captain Tawfik al-Skail, deputy head of the Misratan coastguard. “And come summer, with the better weather, if there isn’t immediate assistance and help from the EU, then there will be an overwhelming increase.”

Save the Children has been on the front lines in the migrant crisis, and said it was growing increasingly worried about an expected increase in children making the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean.

On Friday, it reported that nearly two dozen badly burned Eritreans had landed in Lampedusa that morning, the victims of a chemical fire in the Libyan factory where they were held before their departure.

According to witness accounts, five people, including a baby, died in the blast – which occurred after a gas canister exploded – and the rest of the victims were not brought to a hospital by the smugglers holding them. Instead, the injured were put on a ship bound for Italy a few days later. The victims were airlifted to hospitals across Sicily on their arrival.

The story was confirmed by UNHCR, which also interviewed survivors.