The Mediterranean Sea, for three days last week, claimed over seven hundred lives. The extent of this tragedy was enough for the United Nations to call an emergency Security Council meeting. But no serious reaction came from those who claim to be protectors of the human race. On Wednesday, May 25, a boat carrying about 600 persons capsized. The body count is on-going. The next day, a boat which did not have an engine but nevertheless carried 670 souls, capsized as it was being towed by another boat. Five hundred and fifty persons from this boat, are missing. Then on Friday, May 27, another boat, sank. No part of humanity can wash its hands off these tragedies.
Not since the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1852, which resulted in about 1.3 million deaths and over one million Irish taking to the seas in so called Coffin Ships to reach England, Wales, Australia and North America, has humanity witnessed such calamity. The Irish journeys were so tragic that for instance, over 20,000 Irish of the 100,000 who headed for Canada in 1847 perished either on the way or on arrival. But the 170 years that separate the desperate Irish sea journey to America and the current one to Europe, should have prepared humanity against this 21st century calamity.
What makes the current case worse is that while the Irish famine was a combination of natural and British-tailored disasters, the current one is essentially man-made. Forty one percent of the those making the precarious journey to Europe, are Syrians fleeing war. The war in Syria is a proxy one of the United States, Europe and some Middle East countries to get rid of the Bashar al-Assad Government. To achieve this, they created, trained, armed and funded ISIS, which has become an uncontrollable monster.
Twenty one percent of those fleeing are Afghans; a long suffering people. The Afghan Civil War of December 1979 to February 1989 was a proxy one reflecting the Cold War. The defunct Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies supported the government while the United States and its NATO allies, established, trained and funded the Mujahideen rebels. The latter attracted young Muslims from the Arab world like Osama Bin Laden to fight in the war. Bin Laden created the al-Qaeda, which was accused of being responsible for the horrendous 9/11 attacks in United States. The Americans and their allies invaded Afghanistan to get Bin Laden out; 26,270 civilians have been killed since 2001, Bin Laden is dead, but the war continues. So for many Afghans, the choice is to flee.
Thirteen percent are Iraqis. That country under Sadam Hussein was fiercely anti-terrorist. Under the false claims that the country had Weapons of Mass Destruction and was a State Sponsor of Terrorism, America, Britain and their allies including Australia, Denmark, Poland, invaded it from March 20, 2003. They succeeded in destroying Sadam and his regime, and of course, Iraq itself. Iraq became a failed state, ISIS carved out large portions of it for its Caliphate, the victors control its oil and many became refugees.
Apart from those trying to escape violence in Somalia, Libya and Pakistan, these figures show that 75 percent of the refugees are from the war torn countries of Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, which gives a lie to claims that they are mainly economic refugees. Even the few economic refugees reflect, partly, the failure of globalisation to meet basic human needs that will make living meaningful. A world of desperate people who have nothing to live for, cannot be a safe one.
People fleeing violence, hunger and uncertainty, for whom possible watery death is preferable to living in their countries, cannot be stopped. In 2015, we lost over 3,500 of such people to the seas, while in the first five months of this year, at least 2,500 have been lost. Those lost to the seas, sometimes with their entire families, had hopes of a better life and future; they had loved ones who looked forward to seeing them.
A humanity that will cry over the killing of a lion, weep for the shooting of a gorilla and mourn the passing of a dog, but has no tears for 700 human beings drowned in the seas over three days in avoidable tragedies, needs to re-examine itself
After over six decades of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and humanity getting to the level of protesting the detention of a single individual, the impression was that all human lives matter; so why does it look the other way when hundreds of people are drowned at sea? Is it because they are poor, defenceless people? In the past five months, over 2,500 people are either dead or missing in the tidal waves of the Mediterranean Sea, compared to 3,500 in the whole of 2015. What this shows is that painful watery graves are no deterrent, nor are the wooly-headed measures taken to stop more people taking to the seas. The Australia option of dumping refugees in detention camps outside its shores is criminal. The European Union measure of blocking the refugees from leaving Greece and pushing them into large holding centres in Turkey – having bribed that country with money and promises of incorporation into EU and a visa-free programme – will also not work. In fact this new EU ‘policy’ has made the crises even more bizarre. While some months ago, the precarious journey in the seas to reach Europe was undertaken from Asia and Africa, now those who survived the seas to get to Greece, are undertaking another dangerous sea journey; an intra-European one from Greece to Italy.
In the short term, humanity needs to welcome the migrants. In the medium span, Europe, Australia, America and other destinations of choice for the refugees should provide visa for the most vulnerable, who to me are those fleeing wars and violence. On the long term, we need to address the core reasons for this migration including ending the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria, defeating ISIS and terrorism, and evolving a just globalisation from which all humanity will benefit.
Owei Lakemfa, former Secretary General of African Workers is a Human Rights activist, journalist and author.