Survivors of War and Slavery Stranded At Sea

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In 2015, the year in which more than one million migrants arrived on European shores, several European countries responded generously.

Four years ago, he escaped the jihadists in West Africa. Last year, slavery in Libya survived. But for Daouda Soumana, a 20-year-old merchant from Niger, one of the cruelest experiences of his quest for security occurred this week, in view of the southern shores of Europe.

From the deck of Sea-Watch 3, a rescue boat that owns and runs a small German charity, Soumana can see the white cliffs of Malta that gleam in the sunlight, and even the silhouette of buildings on the seashore . The German crew can reach the coast in a matter of 45 minutes in a speedboat, unlike Soumana.

He is one of the 49 stranded migrants aboard a pair of rescue boats whose requests for a safe place to reach have been ignored or denied by all national governments that have surrounded the Mediterranean Sea since December.

“We are crying,” Soumana said in the boat this week. “We can see Malta with our own eyes, but we are still stranded on this ship.”

The uncertain fate of the Sea-Watch shows the effect of the hard-line approach that has been adopted in Europe regarding migration: a desperate rescue boat that goes from one place to another without being able to dock, and not because there are maritime storms, but because of stormy politics.

Survivors of War and Slavery Stranded At Sea

The odyssey has claimed lives

For years, the Italian coast guard has coordinated with the Sea-Watch to move quickly to a port in southern Italy, or transfer its passengers to a boat that was heading there. However, now that Europe is trying to dissuade asylum-seekers, Italy’s interior minister has ordered the ports of his country not to let migrants rescued outside the maritime border.

Since last June, when Matteo Salvini, the interior minister, began to hold office, the new populist government in Italy had ordered the coast guard not to participate in the rescues. This has emboldened Malta, its neighboring country, and other countries to do the same.

On the whole, Italian, Maltese and Greek officials have harassed the charities that once carried out rescue missions on the coasts of Libya and Turkey; they have initiated criminal investigations against them and sometimes confiscate their boats. The Sea-Watch is now one of only three private boats that still perform rescues in the Mediterranean, while during the height of the migration crisis in 2015 there were sixteen rescue boats.

All this has claimed lives.

Although the number of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean has drastically decreased – a trend that began long before Salvini made the decision to close ports – an increasing percentage of migrants leaving Libya are drowning.

Survivors of War and Slavery Stranded At Sea

At the same time, the number of migrants has also increased as the Libyan coast guard has returned to the country, devastated by the war. It was almost 50 percent in 2018, while in 2017 it was only ten percent, according to data compiled by Matteo Villa, a leading expert on the issue of migration in the Mediterranean of the Italian Institute for International Political Studies .

Europe, without interest in migrants

The difficult situation of Sea-Watch 3 is “a metaphor of the state in which Europe is at the moment,” said Villa. “Europe does not want more migration, and wants to create a symbol that shows that nobody can enter the continent,” he said.

Europe’s new ironical stance has turned what must have been a moment of relief – when Sea-Watch 3 rescued Soumana and 31 other migrants who had left a beach in Libya in a flimsy rubber boat – in a new traumatic experience.

Italy has not only stopped coordinating migrant rescue missions in the southern Mediterranean, but has also delegated that responsibility to the Libyan coast guard, a soldier team that employs several militias.

After the Sea-Watch rescued passengers from the rubber boat on December 22, approximately 30 nautical miles north of the Libyan coast, the Italian coast guard told its crew to ask the Libyan coast guard instructions on what to do next.

The Libyan coast guard refused to help. All the other countries in the region did the same, as if it were a “go and bother the neighbour” policy, as each one sent the asylum seekers to the next nation.

A United Nations official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Malta had refused to allow two boats to dock until other European countries promised not only to accept some of the 49 migrants on board, but also also approximately 250 more migrants who have arrived in the archipelago in recent months.

The Maltese government did not respond to requests for comment, while the Italian Interior Minister said in a statement that Italy was not interested in helping to receive migrants. For years, he added, few European countries showed Italy the same solidarity.

They allowed the two boats to enter Maltese waters on January 2, and they left on the deck again the passengers who were in the Sea-Watch. However, they are still in limbo, very close to the European coasts, but very far from being allowed to apply for asylum there.

“Do not call you by your name”: Soumana

In 2015, the year in which more than one million people arrived on European shores, several European countries responded generously.

Germany agreed to host asylum seekers even if they had passed through other parts of Europe. The Italian government allowed hundreds of thousands of rescued migrants to reach Italian ports. Later, they allowed several private rescue missions, including the one from Sea-Watch, to consider Italy as a safe area.

However, European politicians have gradually changed their minds, and have reduced unauthorized maritime migration by 90 percent through agreements with authoritarian leaders in the periphery of Europe, as well as obstructing rescue missions in the Mediterranean.

In an initiative led by Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, the European Union, paid Turkey to block migration in southeastern Europe, which declined almost overnight in March 2016. Then, in 2017 , the Italian Interior Minister convinced a group of Libyan militias not to allow migrants to leave the coasts of the country, so arrivals of migrants to Italy decreased by almost 70 percent.

Soumana has been undertaking his journey since 2015, but the most recent part of his odyssey began on December 21, when his group left the Libyan coast.

Survivors of War and Slavery Stranded At Sea

Soumana noted that on two previous occasions the Libyan coast guard arrested him and took him to a prison camp where he was beaten with metal pipes, held for ransom and later forced to work on a farm without a salary.

“Do not call you by your name,” he said. “They say ‘abd'”, a word in Arabic that means slave.

“I came out of a problem in Libya to meet another here,” said Soumana, as he watched the waters on the cliffs further south of Malta. “It’s not logical.”

 

Source: Am de Queretaro