Humanitarian Disaster at Sea

By Ramzy Baroud

Has the sea always been so cruel?

The little girl was dressed in blue pants and a green jacket. Her hair was finely kempt in a ponytail, probably interwoven by her mother. Thursday was meant to be a special day for her, a fact that was highlighted by the carefully chosen details of her outfit — matching green socks and green jacket, white tennis shoes with dark blue stars painted on the sides. But on that day itself, the little Palestinian girl sunk to her death, along with her family and many others.

A rickety boat filled with numerous people, including entire families, sunk merely a hundred metres off the Turkish western Aegean coast last Thursday. It was reported that women and children were kept at the bottom of the boat. When the overcrowded vessel hit the rocks and began sinking, many swam to shore. The most vulnerable drowned. Most of the dead migrants were Palestinians, according to Reuters and the Guardian, but they also included Iraqis and Syrians. “The latest death toll we have is 60 people, including 11 men, 18 women and 31 children and three babies,” said Tahsin Kurtbeyoglu, Turkish Governor of the coastal district of Menderes in Izmir province.

Some of the dead were Syrians, who must now top the list of the most likely to die at sea — or anywhere else — seeking respite from a dreadful war. Just days prior to the sinking of the boat, six Syrians, including two children, were reportedly killed. Their boat had sunk off the cost of Karpas Peninsula in Northern Cyprus, nearly 100km from their starting point.

Human smugglers are having a heyday as conflicts generated during the Arab Spring have either driven hundreds of thousands of people out of their homelands, or provided lapses in border security that have encouraged other desperate and poor migrants to flee.

European countries are hell-bent on preventing their countries from being used as final destinations or even springboards for escaping refugees. In fact, a European external border surveillance system (EUROSUR) was proposed with the very purpose of “reduc(ing) the number of illegal immigrants who enter the European Union undetected”. Never mind that many of those immigrants flee for their lives to escape conflicts that originated from the very powers that are so determined to make EUROSUR a splendid success. It is pure hypocrisy.

Set aside the fact that Italy was Libya’s colonial ruler between 1911 and 1943 and that it has done little since then to rectify the incredible harm (bordering on genocide) that resulted from this cruel period. One still cannot ignore the fact that Italy was the most fervent and visible Nato member that participated in the bombing of Libya last year.

For many days, Italian fighter jets took off from an air force base in Sicily and other locations, faithfully carrying out their deadly work and returning unharmed. The bombing was justified by a bewildering logic that claimed it was intended to prevent humanitarian disaster. But humanitarianism ran short when poor refugees used the security opening at the vast Libya coast to seek an escape into Italy or nearby countries. They were fought at every corner by a vigilant Italian Navy and coast guard.

It is fair to assume that when people — any people — risk their lives on such deadly journeys, they do so out of utter desperation. In some instances, taking on an unforgiving sea might be a more feasible attempt at survival than staying at one’s home. The little Palestinian girl with the ponytail and green socks was uprooted from a refugee camp and taken through the fraught journey because her parents dreamed of a better life for her and her siblings.

When the motive is sheer survival, the crisis is not about European security being compromised by hordes of riches-seeking migrants. It is a serious humanitarian concern, which requires that those migrants are treated as victims, not aggressors. For years, however, European navy and coast guards have implemented a policy of “push-back” — as in sending these roaming sea refugees back into the sea.

The issue is not a mere rhetorical debate concerning borders and politics. People are dying and thousands of these deaths go unreported. According to the estimates of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) 1,500 people died in the Mediterranean Sea in 2011 alone. The Fortress Europe website — which tracks such numbers — places the figure at more than 2,000, reporting that more than 13,500 perished at sea since 1998. Some have claimed the number is likely to be much higher. Sea disappearances of asylum-seeking refugees are a daily occurrence.

In a briefing paper entitled ‘Hidden Emergency-Migrant Deaths in the Mediterranean (August 16)’, Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticized (although mildly) the security-centric European approach to the crisis. It reported that in recent years, the number of migrants crossing into Europe has sharply decreased, but not because the original reasons compelling refugees to flee have been treated and fixed. “The numbers fell sharply in 2009 and 2010, reflecting Italy’s abusive policy of intercepting and summarily returning migrant boats to Libya in 2009 and tighter EU member state immigration cooperation with countries of departure,” HRW said.

However, in 2011, the number of boat refugees sharply increased due to conflicts in North Africa. This was followed by stern policies by European countries, even though the problem required a much more humane and far-reaching approach.

“Europe has a responsibility to make sure that preventing deaths at sea is at the heart of a coordinated Europe-wide approach to boat migration, not a self-serving afterthought to policies,” says HRW. But more is needed, including finding the common thread between most of the boat refugees. It is not poverty alone that compels people to seek salvation. The three dominant nationalities on the recently sunk boat near Turkey were Palestinians, Syrians and Iraqis. One of the common denominators is that they were all victims of conflicts that were financed or encouraged by outside meddlers, including European countries. Many of Libya’s refugees would have stayed home had Italian bombers stayed in their military bases.

The girl in the green jacket was found lifeless. When a Turkish coast guard carried her frail body outside the water, her arms were stiffened, but her hair was still finely combed. There are numerous other children like her — all dressed up for special days, unaware of all the grim possibilities.

– Ramzy Baroud is an internationally-syndicated columnist and the editor of PalestineChronicle.com. His latest book is My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story. (This article was first published in Gulf News – September 12, 2012. Photo: video footage.)

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