Wednesday, 9 October 2013

'Slaughter of the Innocents'

As more details emerge about the drowning of over 350 African migrants when their ship capsized on 3 October a few miles off the Italian island of Lampedusa, officials at the European Union are under pressure to find ways to prevent such disasters. Italy's President Giorgio Napolitano described it as a 'slaughter of the innocents' and Pope Franciscalled for a 'day of tears' after lamenting that the world 'does not care about the many people fleeing slavery, hunger, fleeing in search of freedom'.

With some 440 people on board the ship, this is one of the worst incidents on a migration route – regularly used by Africans, Arabs and Asians – on which over 6,000 people have perished in the last 20 years. Lampedusa is the new 'Checkpoint Charlie' between Western Europe and the developing world, said Angelino Alfano, Italy's Interior Minister. The people-smugglers, who charge migrants at least US$3,000 each for the trip, are ruthless and expert at evading prosecution. Over 10,000 Eritreans and Somalis have arrived in Italy this year – and more than 7,000 Syrians fleeing from the civil war.

Quite what Europe, which is fast losing its economic and diplomatic role in Africa to Asia, could do is a matter for fierce debate. Many in Africa and beyond blame the 'fortress Europe' strategy for forcing would-be migrants to resort to the remorseless people-smugglers. Neither have many politicians in Europe tried seriously to counter the current wave of xenophobia against migrants and explain their massive economic contribution to the continent.

Italy, which receives many of Africa and Asia's migrants on its shores, says the issue requires action from the European Union. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, which has a small office in Libya from where many of the migrants' boats set sail, is also under pressure to do more. There are reports that the captains of other ships fail to stop when they see a ship of migrants in trouble; some are calling for an international law to compel them to help. Tougher action against the criminal organisations that run the people-smuggling operations might also help, as would an information campaign in African and Asian states warning people of the dangers of clandestine migration. But in war zones such as Syria, migrants say the choice is between being shot at home or to risk death while trying to escape.

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