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Death Lurks Offshore

, by Tesfalem Habte Yemane

For many African refugees and asylum seekers who are trafficked, David Harvey’s argument in Between Space and Time: Reflections on the Geographical Imagination, about the memories of past disasters and the passing of seasons plays a crucial role in people’s decisions about travel and also fits well with the reality for refugees straddled in Libya.


For many of them, the spring and summer seasons are the times of touching goodbyes and parting with friends and loved ones. And this is simply because the dangerous tides of the Mediterranean Sea are calm at this part of the year and refugees, who pay a large sum of fees for smugglers and traffickers to take them to Europe, are huddled into overcrowded, leaky and unsafe boats in northern Libya. Indeed, saying ‘goodbye’ for many refugees has become an agonizing ritual of bidding farewell to those who embark on the perilous journey from Libya and regrettably end up languishing either in the Saharan Desert or in the high waters of the Mediterranean Sea because they are caught in shipwrecks or massive tides.

Many are feeling abject poverty, inter and/or intra-state conflicts, tribal violence, and persecution by the ruthless governments in their respective home countries. The world was taken aghast by the Lampedusa tragedy in October of 2013, when over 367 refugees and asylum seekers, more than 90% of who were Eritreans, drowned a few miles off the shore of the Italian coast. Moreover, in the last two months alone, the UNHCR, media outlets in the Middle East and the West have reported the worrisome signals of this regrettably inevitable tragedy, which is unfolding before our eyes.

For instance, the office of the UNHCR in Geneva has reported that the Italian Coast Guard has already embarked on a massive emergency rescue operation with more than 6000 people already registered. But, given the militarization of Mediterranean borders against newcomers, people will opt to take the most dangerous routes and the world will still be waiting for the inevitable, disturbing scenes on the sands of the other side of the Mediterranean and will possibly be attending candlelight vigils.

What is at stake for the EU?

The struggle and/or debate over what to do with the asylum seekers and refugees has been a policy menace for the EU in recent years. After the Lampedusa tragedy, the European Parliament approved a new Border Surveillance System for curtailing the massive influx of refugees entering the European Union. This EU directive has given Eurosur, the European Border Surveillance System, the task of harmonizing surveillance operations between EU member states and the EU Border Agency, Frontex.

The pressing challenges to the EU and its member states, inter alia, emanate from real (and often times assumed rather than demonstrated) threats of terrorism, increased competition for services, such as housing, transport, and heightened competition for employment in the host societies in light of the large number of refugees entering the EU. This has also created a spiral of public overreaction across the EU. Robin Cohen rightly captured this sentiment earlier, saying: “sensitivities about Muslim Fundamentalism, political asylum, and illegal migration have fostered fears of ‘cultural dilution’ of the majority’s cherished ways and threatened the collective psychic wellbeing.” Therefore, politicians and decision makers in the EU have been caught in the throes of such domestic reactions to migration, and the international refugee and human rights laws. The former requires the executives in the EU member states to police their frontiers with sophisticated surveillance instruments, while the latter calls for proper management of refugee flows, which include checks for legitimate asylum claims.

How effective are EU’s Measures?

If any, the Lampedusa tragedy set in motion the series of policy decisions that resulted in the militarization of humanitarian efforts in the name of rescue operations. The approval of the European Parliament to establish new border surveillance systems along the Mediterranean Sea is an unfortunate decision to say the least, since the refugees and their smugglers have already started to meet such sophisticated surveillance measures with more sophisticated methods of evasion.

Militarization of the Mediterranean Sea with sophisticated patrolling devices will fail to ameliorate the refugee ordeal, for the smugglers have already proved that they can parallel such equipment with more sophisticated ones of their own. Thomas Fessy of the BBC has noted that the smugglers’ response to the advanced patrolling equipment was that: “we are now equipped with GPS and Thurayas (Satellite phones), it is easier than it used to be, in case we get stuck.” This also goes without mentioning the fact that both the smugglers and refugees are so determined to make it to Europe that they will not even entertain the idea of going back. The result is push-backs to these stranded refugees, which only makes them more willing to retry yet again. Therefore, it appears the EU is trapped in a spiral of ineffective policy formulations.

The Lampedusa tragedy has also proven to be a blessing in disguise to the military industry and private security firms in Europe as the disaster turned out to be a profitable opportunity in the form of arms sales and research funding from the European 7th Framework Programme for Research and Development. Similar initiatives to tighten-up maritime borders to ward incoming refugees off runs counter to the very basis of the EU’s moral values and the responsibility these values entail. It is so unfortunate that the far-right parties in some EU member states and the Italian Anti-immigration Northern League have converged in calling for restrictive asylum policies, which include repatriation.

In this tripartite network of the host countries, smugglers and refugees, the regrettable truth is that people are treated like commodities, signaling the globalization of indifference. Former UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar’s hopes that, “an irresistible shift in public attitudes toward the belief that the defense of the oppressed in the name of morality should prevail over frontiers and legal documents” is yet to come by.

On a similar note, there exists a risk that the asylum policies in the EU fall into the tricky mistake of profiling political refugees on prima facie grounds of economic immigrants. However, meticulous and witty as Thomas Fessy’s report is, it has failed (or perhaps avoided) to do an intensive investigation behind the mass exodus of refugees and asylum seekers from conflict beset regions of Africa, such as Darfur, Somalia, South Sudan and Eritrea, to mention but a few. Such commentaries will only lead to portraying all refugees as economic migrants masquerading as political refugees. The point is not to plead with the EU to roll out a red carpet to massive refugee inflows, but it might wish to do a breakdown of the causes of migration, so as to mitigate illegal migration and human suffering that otherwise might be avoidable with appropriate migration policies.

What can be done?

Given the conflation of complex circumstances and actors involved in the refugee question, it is not an easy task for the EU to formulate a workable refugee policy that can come to fruition. But, the most viable policy option for the EU and/or its member states lies in establishing cooperative mechanisms with the refugee-generating countries so as to come up with tailor-made solutions to help the governments: whether to defuse internal conflicts and improve the living conditions of their citizens or to stop persecutions. After all, it takes two to tango!

And with regards to the already admitted refugees, the EU can turn challenges into opportunities by unleashing the potential of the refugees in making a positive contribution to their host countries. For instance, countries with aging populations and dwindling workforces can benefit by helping the refugees integrate into their host societies. In so doing, the possibility of the new refugees, feeling marginalized and left out will eventually subside. In the long run, this will have the potential of discouraging the young refugees from associating themselves with radical militant groups and terrorist networks in their countries of origin, a worrisome trend that has emerged in recent years.

Even though it might be inconsequential given the socio-economic and political landscape of today’s Europe, Former British Prime Minister James Callaghan’s proclamation in the House of Commons saying that “we are turning away from the shores of this country eligible and desirable young men who could be added to our strength and resources, as similar immigrants have done in the past” still resonates as a prudent imperative. And so does Eritrean Human Rights Activist, Selam Kidane’s eulogy, which she wrote after the Lampedusa accident. A message to the world Do not stew me with roses after I am dead When death claims the light of my brow No flowers of life will cheer me …instead you may give me my roses now!

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