Question to Government: Are you human?

Withdrawal of support for the planned search and rescue operations (2014) was meant to reduce number of migrants attempting the Mediterranean Sea.

In 2015, the numbers of migrants already are 30 times higher than last year. On 15th October 2014, The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Anelay of St Johns) released a statement that the UK government will no longer ‘support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean. We believe that they create an unintended “pull factor”, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths. The Government believes the most effective way to prevent refugees and migrants attempting this dangerous crossing is to focus our attention on countries of origin and transit, as well as taking steps to fight the people smugglers who wilfully put lives at risk by packing migrants into unseaworthy boats.’

It appears as if the motivation behind why these migrants flee is discarded.

Thomas (not his real name): a migrant from Eritrea and a survivor of the ‘dangerous sea’, describes his experience to me in an interview of his journey to what he refers to as the “human rights land”.

“The endless national (military) service, people stay for unknown period of time, for example I have stayed for 15 years 1990-2014”.

The indefinite military service is an obligation that every citizen of Eritrea has to carry out against their will. This usually occurs when people turn to the age of 18. According to Thomas this was a practice of “enslavement”.

“Anyone and everyone who can carry a weapon or even just stand on their feet are required to be in the service.”

Thomas explains he’d served in the military whilst suffering from minor health problems, these issues developed over the 15 years due to immense stress received from military pressures e.g. the attitude that once you are a soldier, you are expected to follow orders regardless of whether or not your physical body is able to. Thomas admitted that these orders had become increasingly difficult for him to follow and so decided “enough was enough”.

The only way out of Eritrea without risking prosecution is to claim discharge, but only if Eritrean authorities approve of the requests. Rejection after rejection, this process proved futile and so Thomas amongst others fled.

“The easiest route is through Sudan, and we’d get to the human rights way of life, countries which have this aspect, which give interest to these things are the Western countries like Europe America Canada Australia, these countries is where they are able to get to which respect rights”

Thomas is just a microcosm of a large population within Eritrea who are willing to go against Eritrea’s “human rights abuse government”; so fortunately for Thomas he didn’t travel alone. However, travelling was an issue. The boats were ‘unseaworthy’ like Baroness Anelay described. This was unexpected as Thomas like the other migrants have been sold the illusion that they were leaving on a ship by traffickers. In Thomas’ words a “faulty fishing boat” was the reality. About “30-metres long”, he described it as when I asked him to state the size. It appears as if ‘unseaworthy’ is an understatement.

They met the small boat at the Egypt borders, which was not the worst part of their journey. Before boarding the boat, the smugglers placed Thomas in a fruit plantation farm, where he met other migrants from Eritrea, Egypt and Syria all placed in the same group. They then waited for cars and lorries to take them to the actual border to board the boats.

“They put you on a lorry and cover you with a tent, and you sit like cartons, like stacked boxes over each other, it was tightly packed and you wouldn’t believe the amounts of Egyptian kids there were sitting so close to us”.

In Thomas’ group in total there were roughly 85 people altogether, once they had gotten to the ports they met another group which consisted of 150 people, and sailed out at around 250 people from Alexandria. After a day and a half, there was another ship waiting for Thomas and the other migrants on his boat, this one however was smaller and already had 100 people in it.

“We were sitting so tight together, too close together, you couldn’t even stretch your legs. Sometimes, though, we were allowed to walk and stand up, but no one can do it as they wish in order to maintain balance; its forbidden, and the ship is small, you have to stay down to prevent capsize.” There were now around 350 people on the fishing boat, who stayed in these conditions for 7 days. The weather was scorching hot as they had left around summer time, and so they would take it in turns to go into the fridge downstairs to cool down, because it was “very hot and suffocated”.

It was a fishing boat, ideally you would assume that there aren’t many members on fishing boat, so this stereotype was useful as the boat appeared empty when cruisers went by as the crew members made sure all passengers stayed down. This, alongside the damaged aspects on the boat, made it seem like there were no migrants on board when really there were 300 plus. “We didn’t want any coast guards to see us, whether they are Egyptian coastguards, Libyan coastguards or Italian coastguards”. Italian coastguards however, caught the fishing boat, and took all migrants on it including Thomas and sailed on the navy ships for two days in Naples, (Napoli) . Thomas, from there escaped the camp he was placed in and made his journey here to the UK (you can hear about the rest of his story in a following blog).

Thomas stressed that with every possible route, there were and still are risks; an example was the avoided Libya route, despite it being faster than the Egyptian route. He highlights his refusal to take this path as he was aware of Libya’s political health, i.e. the lack of government legitimacy. Libyan gangs were rumoured to be positioned at Libya’s border competing to gain territory of the borders. There is risk of being shot by these gangs if perceived as a threat to the country e.g. like terrorists. Certain areas of Sudan were also avoided when Thomas passed through, in order to prevent the chances of capture by traffickers.

Human Rights Watch in February 2014 published a ‘Trafficking and torture report’ which includes recounts from victims, abusers and witnesses themselves. In the report it mentions that areas like Kassala in Eastern Sudan are where traffickers are common. They kidnap vulnerable migrants and transport them to the Egypt peninsula Sinai where they are tortured and or sold. Occasionally the ‘migrants’ are held to ransom and the victims’ families receive phone calls where they hear their loved ones screaming for help. The numbers of trafficker’s victims are so high that people within Thomas’ group knew of someone who had been abused. The worst part of the journey was having these fears chase you wherever you go, not knowing whats going to happen next.

If this was you, after all the obstacles you faced to reach the borders and only then to attempt the ‘dangerous sea’, wouldn’t you have earned the right to be saved?

Maurice Wren from the Guardian argued “People fleeing atrocities will not stop coming if we stop throwing them life-rings” a valid, significant point. He uses the Mediterranean route ‘Libya’ as an example and describes the decision to migrate as a ‘rational’ one. I believe this is merely to do with the fact that since the country is in ‘flames’, the logical, ideal instinct will be water related. . . so taking a boat across the sea is the human thing to do; which brings me to the main point that these ‘migrants’ are human too.

The United Nations High Commissioner for refugees stated that these migrants would come ‘anyways’ due to various reasons such as escaping violent chaos as a result of civil war in places such as Syria and Libya. It is mainly Eritrea, Syria and Somalia that flee to Europe the most.

I asked Thomas for his thoughts on the “pull factor” theory, he argued that people are trying to escape dangers at home and if they remain in countries like Sudan, they risk being turned in by spies from the Eritrean government, and also that the quality of life in places like Egypt and Libya aren’t that great, and is evident in the number of migrants trying to flee from those countries themselves.

Italy’s search and rescue operations have done a commendable job; they have saved thousands of lives. You argue that as a result of their praiseworthy work, more ‘migrants’ will feel the need to leave to Europe as they rely highly on the search and rescue, when in reality that’s the last occurring thought, if one at all. Realistically if you were going to go out into sea, the last thing you’d want to do is imagine the possibility that your boat will be the boat that does not make it to the other side. Thomas went on with the idea that since he’d payed good money to the people smugglers, he expected to get to the other side safely.

‘The most effective way to prevent refugees and migrants attempting this dangerous crossing is to focus our attention on countries of origin’, what exactly does that mean? What measures have you taken to make sure this ‘effective way’ would be carried out? According to Thomas the only way for this issue to be resolved is if the President Isaias Afwerki steps down, or if this military service is abolished or if democracy, or any form of free speech has no consequences. Have any of these issues been focused on, or even brought to light?

In terms of fighting the ‘people smugglers’, what have you done? There’s an irony here, you want to fight the people smugglers to reduce death numbers of migrants, yet in the meantime whilst you focus your attention on the ‘country of origins’ (an unclarified objective) thousands of migrants will die. The support that you took away could have saved thousands of lives; the only unnecessary deaths created appear to be the ones you allowed.

“As this is a sensitive subject, some names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.” Thomas is just a representative of Eritrea, there are other countries Niger, Syria, Libya etc. Thomas also didn’t have the worst case scenario, there are migrants who walked through the Sahara.

sources: And of course Thomas.


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