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Africa: Migrant Deaths at Sea

AfricaFocus Bulletin
Oct 6, 2013 (131006)
(Reposted from sources cited below)

Editor's Note

"These days, it takes a blockbuster tragedy for migrant boats to reach the front pages - the quiet, regular additions to the Mediterranean's death toll encountered on an almost-weekly basis by rescuers, human rights activists and migrant communities themselves are simply far too humdrum to make the mainstream news. In the past two decades, almost 20,000 people are recorded as having lost their lives in an effort to reach Europe's southern borders from Africa and the Middle East." - Guardian, Oct. 3, 2013

With more than 300 dead or missing from the capsizing of the boat with African migrants off the island of Lampedusa, migrant deaths at sea are again in the news. But more such tragedies are inevitable without changes in the fundamental factors at work. Just as in the parallel case of migrants crossing the deserts along the U.S-Mexican border, structural inequalities between rich and poor regions of the world make such high-risk journeys an alternative to joblessness and insecurity at home for large numbers of people. The countries they try to reach, instead of establishing workable systems of legal immigration and systems to protect those at risk, concentrate on building higher barriers and expanding detention and deportation programs.

In addition to such fundamental changes, critics of European policy note, there are many practical steps that could be taken to ensure that there are fewer deaths. These deaths, read a headline in the Guardian, are "a litany of largely avoidable loss."

According to a BBC report on October 6, the survivors from Lampedusa

"are to be placed under investigation for 'clandestine immigration', as provided for by a controversial immigration law pushed through by right-wing parties in 2002. The offence carries a 5,000-euro ($6,780) fine.

Italy has said it will amend immigration laws. Members of parliament have complained that some of its provisions discourage people from helping migrants in distress.

The fisherman who arrived first at the site of the accident, Vito Fiorino, has accused the coast guard of wasting time by filming footage of rescue efforts.

'They refused to take on board some people we'd already saved because they said protocol forbade it,' he was quoted as saying by Ansa news agency."

This AfricaFocus Bulletin contains three short articles with background on the deaths near Lampedusa, and a press conference by the UN's Special Rapporteur on Human Rights of Migrants, on October 3, the opening day of the UN's "High-level Dialogue on Migration and Development."

For an update with more news on the Lampedusa deaths, see the October 5 AP story at

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletins on migration, visit

On the specific issue of rights of migrants at sea, see

See also William Minter, African Migration, Global Inequalities, and Human Rights: Connecting the Dots (Nordic Africa Institute, 2011)

For more on the High-Level Dialogue on Migration and Development, see and The first point in the meeting's 8- point agenda for action was to "protect the human rights of all migrants."

++++++++++++++++++++++end editor's note+++++++++++++++++

Lampedusa - 300 or more dead in latest accident, what can be done to stop migrant deaths at sea?

By Niels Frenzen 04 Oct 2013 / direct URL:

Italian authorities have so far recovered about 120 bodies from yesterday's accident a very very short distance from the shores of Lampedusa. Authorities believe there may be more than 150 bodies of children, women, and men still to be recovered.

What can be done to prevent such deaths? It is certainly possible that nothing could have prevented yesterday's disaster. This was not a case of a disabled boat left to drift at sea while ships and aircraft failed to assist. This was not a case involving a failure to act promptly to rescue persons in distress. This was not a case of a diplomatic dispute between countries over which country had the responsibility to rescue and where rescued persons were to be disembarked after rescue. It may turn out to be the case that someone observed the overloaded migrant boat as it sailed from Libya towards Lampedusa. If the migrant boat was observed by a commercial or military ship, a rescue operation probably should have been implemented immediately. But while the Mediterranean Sea is crowded with ships, it is certainly possible that this boat sailed unobserved from Libya to Lampedusa.

Could anything have been done to prevent these deaths?

Could anything have been done to prevent the deaths of 13 migrants who drowned on the beach at Sicily last week? Or the 31 people who drowned off the Libyan coast in July? Or the 20 who died near Lesvos Island in Greece last December, the 89 who died in the Strait of Gibraltar over 10 days in October-November 2012, or the 58 who died off the coast of Izmir, Turkey in September 2012? (For a more complete list of reported deaths at sea consult Fortress Europe's La Strage web page (the Massacre).; in Italian)

As long as people move, whether forced to flee danger or to improve their lives or for other reasons, there will be dangers on land and sea. The dangers will always be greater when people are compelled to move outside of legal channels. Creating more opportunities for legal migration and creating an external procedure for seeking refugee protection within the EU would help many people and would reduce the numbers of people traveling by dangerous means. But there will still be people unable to secure a visa or protection who would be compelled to travel by sea.

There are many measures that can be taken by the EU to reduce the numbers of people dying in the Mediterranean and off the coast of western Africa. As a reminder, here is an excerpt from the recommendations issued last year by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in the report issued in the aftermath of the deaths of 63 people on board the "left to die" boat that drifted in the Mediterranean for two weeks. The recommendations made sense then as they do now:

  • fill the vacuum of responsibility for an SAR zone left by a State which cannot or does not exercise its responsibility for search and rescue, such as was the case for Libya. This may require amending the International Maritime Search and Rescue Convention (SAR Convention)....;

  • ensure that there are clear and simple guidelines, which are then followed, on what amounts to a distress signal, so as to avoid any confusion over the obligation to launch a search and rescue operation for a boat in distress;

  • avoid differing interpretations of what constitutes a vessel in distress, in particular as concerns overloaded, unseaworthy boats, even if under propulsion, and render appropriate assistance to such vessels. Whenever safety requires that a vessel be assisted, this should lead to rescue actions;

  • tackle the reasons why commercial vessels fail to go to the rescue of boats in distress. This will require dealing with:
    (1) the economic consequences for the rescuing vessel and its owners, and the issue of compensation;
    (2) the disagreement between Malta and Italy as to whether disembarkation should be to the nearest safe port or to a port within the country of the SAR zone. The International Maritime Organization should be urged to find a solution to the matter and step up its efforts towards a harmonised interpretation and application of international maritime law;
    (3) the fear of criminalisation (trafficking or aiding and abetting irregular migration) by those who go to the rescue of boats carrying irregular migrants, asylum seekers and refugees;
    (4) legislation to criminalise private shipmasters who fail to comply with their duty under the law of the sea, as is already the case in certain Council of Europe member States;

  • ensure that, in accordance with the Hirsi v. Italy judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, after the rescue operation, people are not pushed back to a country where they risk being treated in violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights;

  • tackle the issue of responsibility sharing, particularly in the context of rescue services, disembarkation, administration of asylum requests, setting up reception facilities and relocation and resettlement, with a view to developing a binding European Union protocol for the Mediterranean region. The heavy burden placed on frontline States leads to a problem of saturation and a reluctance to take responsibility;

  • respect the families' right to know the fate of those who lose their lives at sea by improving identity data collection and sharing. This could include the setting up of a DNA file of the remains of those retrieved from the Mediterranean Sea. In this context, the ongoing work of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other organisations should be acknowledged and supported.

Mediterranean migrant deaths: a litany of largely avoidable loss

There is a divide between those who prioritise the saving of lives and those who insist on border enforcement

Jack Shenker

The Guardian, 3 October 2013

These days, it takes a blockbuster tragedy for migrant boats to reach the front pages - the quiet, regular additions to the Mediterranean's death toll encountered on an almost-weekly basis by rescuers, human rights activists and migrant communities themselves are simply far too humdrum to make the mainstream news. "The reaction of a lot of us this morning was just 'yet again, yet again' ... except this time it's even worse," Judith Sunderland, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who specialises in migration, told the Guardian. "What's chilling is to think that this could have been prevented."

In the past two decades, almost 20,000 people are recorded as having lost their lives in an effort to reach Europe's southern borders from Africa and the Middle East. In 2011, at the height of the Arab uprisings, more than 1,500 were killed in a single year. Thursday's horrific scenes are only the latest in a long line of similar, albeit less dramatic, boat disasters - a litany of largely avoidable loss which inspired Pope Francis, on a visit to Lampedusa earlier this year, to inveigh against the rich world's "globalisation of indifference".

Activists and policymakers agree that a large portion of the blame for migrant deaths must lie with the unscrupulous criminal gangs who demand large payments for arranging people trafficking and often use dangerously overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels for the job. But on the question of how Europe should approach this problem, there is considerable discord, dividing those who believe far more needs to be done to prioritise the saving of lives, from those who fear any shift in emphasis away from border enforcement will only encourage people trafficking.

"If traffickers think they can smuggle people in with impunity, that's an incentive for smuggling to increase," said Christopher Chope, a Conservative MP and rapporteur for the Council of Europe's committee on migration. But critics claim that the enforcement posture adopted by both European nations and the continent's supranational agencies such as the border control force Frontex only serve to deny migrants vital humanitarian assistance and increase the risk of boat deaths.

"What we really don't see is a presumption of saving lives; what we get instead is every effort to shut down borders," said Sunderland, who pointed out that security crackdowns on land crossings such as the Greece-Turkey border only displaced migrant flows and often forced more boats into the sea. "The only hope is that this latest tragedy fundamentally shocks the conscience of Europeans and European decision-makers into adopting a real life-saving approach to migrants in the Mediterranean."

But more often than not attempts to forge a co-ordinated, effective European response to irregular migration by boat have stumbled. Following the Guardian's exposé of the "left-to-die" boat in 2011, in which 61 migrants were left to perish slowly at sea despite distress calls being sounded and their vessel's position being made known to European authorities and Nato ships, an in-depth inquiry by the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly found that a "catalogue of failures" had caused the deaths and recommended a fundamental overhaul of European policy on migration; at the same time the UN declared that all migrant vessels in the Mediterranean should be considered by default as in distress, and thus in need of rescue.

Yet although thousands of migrants have been rescued by the coastguards of southern European countries such as Italy and Malta, there still remains an absence of political will when it comes to ensuring that vulnerable migrants don't fall through the cracks of an intricate set of border and rescue policies and overlapping regions of legal jurisdiction. In August the Italian authorities ordered two commercial ships to rescue a migrant boat in the sea and then demanded the ship's captains transport the migrants back to Libya, a move that experts believe could discourage commercial captains from attempting rescues at all and may be in breach of international law.

At the end of this year, Eurosur - a new Mediterranean surveillance and data-sharing system developed by the EU which, among other things, would use satellite imagery and drones to monitor the high seas and the north African coast - is due to go live. European policymakers claim the technology will make a serious contribution to saving migrant lives on the sea, but sceptics say that the project is still primarily focused on preventing migrants reaching Europe at all, and legislation needs to be redrafted to put humanitarian concerns at the forefront of Eurosur's operations.

In the meantime, much more could be done to ensure that both national coastguards and commercial vessels have both the capability and incentives to be proactive when it comes to saving the lives of some of the world's most vulnerable people.

"A terrible human tragedy is taking place at the gates of Europe. And not for the first time," said Jean-Claude Mignon, head of the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly, in response to Thursday's grim death toll. "We must end this now. I hope that this will be the last time we see a tragedy of this kind, and I make a fervent appeal for specific, urgent action by member states to end this shame."

Without a drastic increase in political will across the European continent, his wish is unlikely to be realised.

What the Italian press said about Lampedusa

Donata Columbro | October 4th, 2013

After the death of at least 130 Somalian and Eritrean migrants off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, the Italian (and European) press is once again filled with words of pathos: the human tragedy, the pictures of lined body bags and the tears of Lampedusans for those who never reached them.

There is the Espresso magazine, who wants to nominate the small island of Lampedusa for the Nobel prize. And there are those who can't wait to see the end of the rescue operations to start a debate about the role of the new Minister of integration Cécile Kyenge and Laura Boldrini, president of the Chamber of Deputies. According to Gianluca Pini, "the two women have on their conscience all the illegal immigrants who died during these months because of their goody two-shoes declarations of support for 'third world countries'."

"I want the prime minister Enrico Letta to count the corpses here with me," wrote Giusy Nicolini, mayor of Lampedusa, in a telegram sent to Rome yesterday. "The sea is filled with dead bodies. It's an infinite horror. This is enough, how much longer should we wait after this?", she told journalists while assisting to the recovery of the bodies from the sea.

According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, there were around 500 passengers from Eritrea and Somalia on the boat that left from Libya.

The Italian press mostly used the expression barcone di immigrati (pontoon of immigrants) or the word ecatombe to underline the number of deaths, one of the highest in recent years.

Gabriele del Grande, freelance journalist and author of the blog Fortress Europe in which he counts the number of deaths in the European Union's "border war", claims the responsibility of the tragedy lies with the Bossi-Fini legislation and blames the process of visa permits that are very difficult to obtain. This situation leads to refugees traveling for months in the Saharan desert, arriving in Libya and then paying for a very risky cross over the Mediterranean Sea.

Father Virginio Colmegna, president of the charity foundation "Angelo Abriani" in Milan, writes on his blog hosted by the Repubblica:

What happened today in Lampedusa has become a chilling normality. Wrong laws, repressive measures against migration and lack of interest from European countries that are not directly affected by the daily arrival of migrants, haven't dampened the power of criminal organizations that transport without any scruples those who dream of Europe.

"Let's stop calling it 'a tragedy'," say the NGOs and the charities who work to support the migrants after their arrival in Italy. Savino Pezzotta, president of the Italian Council for Refugees, accuses of demagoguery those politicians who proclaim that we need to think of our "personal problems" first. "The slogan 'don't let them enter Italy' won't solve problems," he says, "we need to accompany them as refugees from their country of origin."

Just three days ago, Italian theater actor Ascanio Celestini was in Lampedusa from where he wrote a diary piece for Il Fatto Quotidiano:

In Lampedusa there are two graves. In one there are the dead, in the other you find the living. They have one thing in common: they are both nameless. Those two graves lie outside the small towns of Contrada Cala Pisana and Contrada Imbriacola. They are respectively the cemetery and the reception center for foreigners ... According to data of the Ministry of the Interior it can accommodate 381 people, but the mayor Giusi Nicolini says that there are currently more than 1000, of which 100 are children.

Yesterday's loss is hardly an isolated incident however: according to NGOs monitoring the situation, more than 13,000 have died at the maritime borders of the European Union between 1988 and 2012, among which 6,000 in the Sicily Channel alone. And the numbers of dead have being going up. Just in 2011, UNHCR estimated that 1,500 asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants have died trying to reach European shores.

Italian politicians are playing the usual blaming game: calling for more involvement of the European Union, while turning a blind eye to the fact that the militarization of the Mediterranean via its FRONTEX agency contributes to traffickers taking more risks and making the crossing less safe. And promises of investigating fishermen for defaulting on their obligations of assistance conveniently ignores that Italy has prosecuted fishermen in the past, accusing them of 'facilitating illegal immigration' as Lampedusa's mayor pointed out yesterday. The truth is, the legal means to reach the European Union for protection reasons are shrinking and now almost non-existent while lending a helping hand is fast becoming a crime. The Italian government went as far as announcing a national day of mourning and a minute of silence has been observed in every school in Italy today. As if to better hide that those are not just "unfortunate deaths", they are deaths by policy.

* Jacques Enaudeau contributed to this post.

Press Conference by Special Rapporteur on Human Rights of Migrants

United Nations Department of Public Information

3 October 2013 / direct URL -

Migration had always been a fundamental human phenomenon, and the human rights of migrants must be respected and enforced whether their crossing was considered "illegal" or not, the Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, François Crépeau, said at a Headquarters press conference today.

"Migrants are human beings with human rights, not agents for economic development and outputs," Mr. Crépeau said. "It's essential that the discussion focuses on the human dimension. All migrants are protected by international human rights law, regardless of the administrative status or situation." Countries, he pointed out, tended to focus on security issues when it came to migrants, not taking into account that "99.99 per cent of irregular migrants posed no security threat."

Yet despite the international legal frameworks in place to protect the rights of migrants, Mr. Crépeau said they continued to suffer from exploitation, xenophobic violence and abuse. States needed to ratify humans rights treaties, particularly those pertaining to migrants, and strengthen global migration governance. Whether or not the crossing was "regular or irregular," migrants needed access to education, health services, courts and tribunals, and proper labour enforcement.

Many vulnerable groups, such as women, minorities, or the LBGT (Lesbian Bisexual Gay and Transgender) community, were able to demand access to their rights via their status as citizens, he said. However, irregular migrants felt unable to advocate for their own rights out of fear of being deported. Thus, millions of migrants had their rights exploited every day, and States needed to take concrete action on the ground to remedy that. For its part, the United Nations needed to increase its presence in the global discussion on migration governance, since States were often reluctant to push the issue themselves due to domestic political concerns over security and national identity.

Prasad Kariyawasam, member and former Chair of the Committee on Migrant Workers, who was also present and speaking on behalf of that Committee's current Chair, Abdelhamid El Jamri, stated that although migrant workers were contributing to both their country of employment and their country of origin "in big terms", their "enormous" work was often overlooked and discounted.

The Migrant Workers Convention, he said, did not go beyond the scope of the other human rights conventions, but it nevertheless gave a very clear road map for how to implement and achieve those rights on the ground. However, that Convention currently had only 47 State parties, and almost all were labour-sending countries rather than labour-receiving countries. A strong approach to combating the violation of migrants' rights required three pillars — countries sending workers, transit countries, and receiving countries. However as of now one of those pillars — that of the receiving countries — was absent.

When asked about yesterday's tragedy in Lampedusa, Italy, in which more than 100 migrants were killed and hundreds more missing after their boat caught fire and capsized, Mr. Kariyawasam said that migrants would continue to take such risks as long as there was a cross-border supply and demand for work, minus sufficient legal migration frameworks.

"Migrant workers are like water," he said. "They flow from where the demand is, to where the supply can be [and] it's up the international community to set up a regulatory mechanism for workers to travel from point A to B when there is a need. That supply and demand equation should be handled devoid of xenophobia."

Mr. Crépeau said that tragedies like that had not always existed, and was a result of the "push factor" and the "pull factor" of migrants being interrupted by a barrier, such as the criminalization of irregular migration. However, such movement would continue "in deserts, mountains, in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic" until the channels of migration were opened to fulfil labour needs.

"States need to think about their share of responsibility in those deaths," he said of the incident in Lampedusa, adding that increasing repression of migration merely handed the control of the border over to smugglers and human traffickers. "Continuing to treat irregular migration only by repressive measures will only result in instances like what was seen last night," he stated.

Responding to several questions about migration issues across the globe, Mr. Crépeau said that alternatives to the practice of detaining irregular migrants were available, and needed be explored in countries such as the United States and other labour receivers which resorted to punitive measures when they should not.

He further said that society needed to take stock of the true costs of doing business, a cost that included fair wages, rather than one based on the exploitation of irregular migrants too often cowed into working for less and fearful of reporting unsafe working conditions. This could also mean re-evaluating the true cost of commodities — be they strawberries, asparagus, domestic services or meals in a restaurant.

Also responding to questions, Mr. Kariyawasam said that Member States needed to be more proactive in addressing migrants' rights, and to make the distinction between migrants and refugees, which was a different category.

"The rights of migrants are still on the back burner," he said, "and it's the responsibility of the Member States and the United Nations to bring them to the fore."

AfricaFocus Bulletin is an independent electronic publication providing reposted commentary and analysis on African issues, with a particular focus on U.S. and international policies. AfricaFocus Bulletin is edited by William Minter.

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