Our seas of dead Africans

Those desperately fleeing violence find themselves in life-threatening situations on the way to "safety".

    Since the civil war began 20 years ago, Yemen offered automatic refugee status to Somalis. Now there are 200,000 refugees out of 700,000 Somalis living in Yemen [EPA]

    Imagine being trapped at sea with no fresh water to drink or food to eat. Fearful of dying from dehydration, you resort to drinking your own pale yellow liquid, carefully rationing each salty sip. As you struggle to survive, a mother and her little baby seated next to you take their last breaths. Days pass before you muster up the courage to say a prayer and release their stiffened bodies into the water.

    This dramatisation is comparable to the experiences of those who endured a 16-day drift at sea, having escaped the conflict in Libya. Of 72 people on board, just 11 survived. Since the Libyan uprising began, an estimated 1,400 Africans have perished in the Mediterranean Sea trying to reach Europe.

    Though stories of creaky, leaky boats capsizing before reaching Lampedusa, Italy or Malta, are not new, the surge in carnage is phenomenal. The Italian, Maltese and Tunisian coast guards and fishermen have courageously rescued hundreds, but much more needs to be done, particularly by European authorities. Chiding the nations, the Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner, Thomas Hammarberg, has said: "European governments and institutions have more responsibility for this crisis than they have demonstrated so far. Their silence and passivity are difficult to accept."

    If the Churchillian peacemongers of Westminster can afford a £1bn intervention in Libya, then they and their NATO allies can certainly spare a few million pounds for increased aerial surveillance to spot vessels in trouble and to cover the welfare needs of the continent's "new strains on the economy". Though Europe whinges in welcome every time a boat with refugees docks on its shores, fewer than two per cent of the 750,000 people who have fled Libya, have braved the Mediterranean - with only 90 per cent of those arriving alive.

    The Red Sea exodus

    The sea connecting Africa to Europe is not the only one presently crossed by refuge-seeking boats. From the Horn of Africa, Somalis, Ethiopians and Sudanese embark on a perilous exodus across the Red Sea to Yemen and other Gulf states in search of a better life. The ongoing popular uprising to unseat the stubborn Saleh regime has not deterred the migrants, for whom Yemen's present instability seems better than the escalating conflict and hardship faced at home. By the end of May, 36,000 Somalis and Ethiopians had crossed the Gulf of Aden, nearly quadrupling last year's January - March figure of 9,400.

    In Somalia, the two-day sea journey begins in coastal villages near Bosaso, the northern port-city and economic centre of Puntland, a relatively stable, independent province. Prospective migrants mainly come from the south central region of Benadir, a province home to the country's capital, Mogadishu. Those that cannot make it to Bosaso travel to Hargeisa, capital of the de facto republic, Somaliland, where the smugglers will take them to Djibouti via road, to the coastal town of Obock where boats set sail for Yemen.

    Depending on one's destination in the Arabian Peninsula, smuggler rates are between $50 - $200 for a place on a seaworthy vessel - or a dodgy dinghy whose chances of making it across the rough seas are slim to none.

    In February, UNHCR reported that 57 Somalis drowned when their boat capsized. Out of a total 108 dead thus far, this single incident is the biggest casualty of the year, and the second highest death toll after a 2008 tragedy in which 114 lives were lost. In April, when the GCC first tried coaxing President Saleh into stepping down, 15 Somalis perished after having been at sea all night and a passing foreign ship ignored their cries for help. Failure to respond to a distress call is an unconscionable act and a breach of the age-old marine principle of "rescue at sea" enshrined in Article 98 of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

    Days before Saleh was hit by shrapnel three inches below his heart, 10 Ethiopians were suffocated to death when, according to UNHCR, "smugglers crammed and confined 25 people to the engine room with no ventilation". Four other people were beaten and forced off to jump overboard into shark-infested waters.

    A law unto themselves

    Dumping bodies has always characterised smuggling, but offloading has increased partly due to the Yemeni authorities tightening up sea patrols. Smugglers would sooner abandon their passengers to drown than face a jail term. Another alternative is to wait out at sea until the coast guard retreats, but should there be a storm, weak boats will not survive. To avoid sinking, the most vulnerable "excess human cargo" is offloaded into the turbulent seas.

    Were Yemeni officials on a search and rescue mission, rather than a search and arrest, smugglers might not have to play the waiting game, callously bumping off easy targets in order to remain afloat.

    Clearly, most of these smugglers are not modern-day Oskar Schindlers sneaking people into relatively safer lands of opportunity, but inhumane tradesmen - beating, raping and sometimes killing their passengers. And though a woefully incorrect criticism of the Australian situation, in the context of smuggling atrocities in the Gulf of Aden, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard is right in saying: "The people smugglers who ply this evil trade ... seek to profit on human misery with callous disregard to human life."

    Undeterred by the laws of Puntland which has criminalised smuggling with the death penalty and increased community patrols to snuff out smuggling rings, the dangerous trade continues and will continue for as long smugglers can find new routes of travel to satisfy demand from people caught between the barrel of a gun and a hard place.

    The grass on the other side

    Unlike other states in the Arabian Peninsula, Yemen is a signatory to the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees which sets out the responsibility of states towards those defined as refugees. Since the civil war began 20 years ago, Yemen has generously offered automatic refugee status to Somalis. Currently, there are almost 200,000 refugees out of 700,000 Somalis living in Yemen. The government claims the recent arrivals are mainly economic migrants rather than those escaping violence, so the prima facie refugee policy is due to undergo revision. Unfortunately, the government does not recognise that economic refugees are a result of civil conflict; people who face dire poverty and starvation because the war completely destroyed their economic livelihood, arguably have as legitimate a reason to escape as those who flee political persecution.

    Upon arrival, some of the smuggled discover the grass is no greener on the other side of Aden's gulf. If found, illegal non-Somali immigrants are deported back to their countries.

    Somalis who register at UN reception centres receive basic aid and a place to sleep in the refugee camp. Though they are also entitled to free government identity cards, "authorities often solicit bribes" according to reports. Those unable to pay for the card, struggle to find work and often resort to begging or menial jobs that pay a pittance. Already combating negative social stereotypes, unsubstantiated rumours of Saleh hiring Somalis as mercenaries to fire on protesters have made life harder in Aden. In fear of running into trouble, some migrants stay locked up in their homes. In April two Somali council workers were killed in the southern city of Al Mukhalla on suspicion of being government agents.

    If the Saleh regime falls and the dust of revolution settles without chaos, the treatment of Somalis by the authorities will be a real litmus test to see if democratic rights achieved by Yemenis extend to all peoples, including newly smuggled economic and political refugees. Obviously, however, the endemic socio-political marking of foreign "others" as inferior and a security threat, by virtue of their ethnic difference and political status, will not suddenly end because the people have toppled the dictator while the sweetest songs of revolution may be heard from the most southern shores to the most northern tip.

    Political reality is less rosy.

    Fulfilling the moral responsibilities of the state and society in accommodating the migrating citizens of the Horn of Africa demands greater effort and vigilance against race-based discrimination.

    Tendai Marima is a Zimbabwean blogger and doctoral scholar at Goldsmiths, University of London whose research interests include African literature and global feminist theory.

    Follow her on Twitter @KonWomyn

    The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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