The end of fortress Europa?

EU politicians are scrambling for solutions after the boat disaster that drowned more than 800 migrants.

Migrants Mediterranean
Migrants crowd an inflatable dinghy in the Mediterranean Sea off Italy's coast [Reuters]

European leaders meet on Thursday in Brussels to discuss emergency measures to protect thousands of desperate migrants making treacherous sea journeys to escape war and poverty back home.    

EU politicians have been scrambling for solutions in the wake of what has been described as the worst ever migrant disaster in the Mediterranean Sea, after about 800 people died on Saturday off of Libya when a people-smuggling boat capsized.

Italy’s proposal to introduce “humanitarian channels” for refugees from war-torn nations could be the first step in saving lives, some officials say. But NGOs working on the ground say they fear the proposal will fail to adequately tackle the ongoing humanitarian crisis.

Italy is expected to ask for greater cooperation among European states to resettle refugees and open humanitarian channels at Thursday’s emergency summit in Brussels.

 Many children among migrants rescued

These would provide a legal route into Europe for those fleeing conflict-ridden countries, including Syria and Somalia.

“I think that in certain countries where there is a clear cut case of war, a humanitarian channel can be created,” Italian MP Khalid Chaouki told Al Jazeera.

Serious advocate

In 2013, Chaouki locked himself inside a detention centre in Sicily to highlight the plight faced by migrants staying there.

“I am confident that the plan can be implemented in the near future, as there are already some European countries, such as Germany, that are trying out some models of this,” said Chaouki.

Italy is also expected to ask for greater cooperation among European states in resettling refugees, and ask for the EU to review its role in responding to issues in the Mediterranean Sea.

“I think the first key political result will be to convince EU leaders there is a common border for us all,” said Chaouki.

Among other key issues being discussed is building a Europe wide search-and-rescue mission.

Migrant rights groups working on the ground say they want to see a clear and immediate political solution – above all developing a Europe-wide policy towards migration not focused exclusively on the continent’s security.

“It’s early days but I hope this meeting will be a step in the right direction,” Chaouki said.

Avoiding tragedy

Meanwhile flows of people fleeing war, persecution, and economic pain continue to embark on the deadly journey towards Europe.

“What we need is a European search-and-rescue mission in the Mediterranean Sea. Anything short of that will fail to avoid a new tragedy,” said Giovanna di Benedetto from the NGO Save the Children.

Over the past month di Benedetto has witnessed the arrival of thousands of people, almost on a daily basis, and heard accounts of increasing violence in Libya and increasingly deadly journeys.

She was among a small group of NGO workers who on Monday provided assistance to the 27 survivors from the smuggler’s shipwreck on Saturday.

Among them were four unaccompanied minors from Somalia and Bangladesh. Her team went to the refugee centre in the Sicilian town of Mascalucia where the four boys are staying.

Migrants arrive at the Sicilian harbor of Augusta [Reuters]
Migrants arrive at the Sicilian harbor of Augusta [Reuters]

They met Said, a 16-year old Somali boy whose journey to Italy lasted more than a year, di Benedetto told Al Jazeera.

Last summer his family handed him over to a Sudanese human trafficker in the hope he would reach his two aunts in Oslo.

On his arrival to Libya, Said, was kidnapped by criminal gangs who held him hostage for nine months inside a crammed house with hundreds of other migrants. During his stay he saw dozens of people die from malnourishment, Said recounted.

When his family was finally able to pay his ransom he headed to Tripoli, where on the night of April 18 he boarded the ill-fated ship. He said he was beaten several times as smugglers sought to cram the vessel with migrants to maximise their profit.

“Initially traffickers attempted to pack 1,200 people on an old fisherman boat, but stopped at 800 as they realised that they could not physically push people any closer together,” said Di Benedetto.

When the ship capsized, Said fainted and woke up in Italy bruised but alive. Of the other 60 unaccompanied minors who left the coast of Libya with Said, only four made it to European shores.

Said said he now wants to continue his journey to reach his family in Norway, but doesn’t want to put his life in the hands of traffickers again, di Benedetto recounted.

Fleeing Eritrea

Refugees from Eritrea are the second-largest group of migrants arriving to Europe, according to a 2014 UNHCR report. Among their reasons for fleeing is the country’s dictatorship and economic strife.

 UN: The deadliest month in the Mediterranean

Amin, who asked his full name not be used fearing political persecution of his family back home, arrived at the Sicilian harbour of Siracusa two weeks ago. He fled Eritrea to avoid the army, in which he was forced to serve for 14 years on a wage of $29 per month.

For three months he travelled through Somalia, Sudan and finally to Libya, from where he also set off to Italy.

He travelled for three days on a fishing boat crammed with other 300 people without food, water, or lifejackets. “They beat us when we ask for food, even with electric sticks,” he told Al Jazeera.

Giulia Chiarenza, a cultural mediator from the NGO Emergency, has been providing medical assistance to Amin and other migrants arriving at the Umberto Primo refugee centre in Siracusa.

“Many come here with burns on their backs from the engines of the boat, against which they are forced to sit as there is no other space,” said Chiarenza. 

“Why should these people have to die, be tortured, just to obtain what is fundamentally their right?” said Chiarenza.

Amin’s boat shipwrecked off the Italian coast after the engine caught fire. “I was sure we were going to die,” he said.  

After several hours of distress, Amin and other passengers were rescued by an Italian Coat Guard ship.

Amin’s journey cost him $4,500 and nearly his life. But throughout the interview, he continuously stressed how lucky he feels to now be in Italy. 

Source: Al Jazeera