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At around 5pm on October 11 last year, Mohammed Kazkji struggled to stay afloat in the Mediterranean Sea, praying for rescue amongst the drowning and the dead.
The 22-year-old was just one of hundreds who had boarded an overcrowded boat in Libya, bound for the promise of Europe; for the promise of work, peace and freedom.
When his vessel capsized off the coast of Malta, it was the second such incident in just over a week. On October 3, a boat carrying more than 500 people had sunk in Italian waters.
The death of more than 400 people was enough to catch the attention of the media. Hundreds of reporters descended on the tiny Sicilian island of Lampedusa, where the first shipwreck had occurred. The public was horrified. Europe’s politicians struggled to find a unified response. Italy soon launched a search and rescue mission, Mare Nostrum.
But the victims of October last year were only a fraction of the approximate 40,000 migrants who have died globally in the past 14 years, many of them fleeing persecution and violence. This year alone, at least 4077 people lost their lives attempting to reach destinations around the world. A staggering 60 per cent of those fatalities occurred in the Mediterranean Sea – making it the deadliest migrant crossing in the world.
Last month, smugglers deliberately rammed boat carrying some 500 migrants in waters near Malta. Just nine people are known to have survived. In another Medditeranean shipwreck on June 28, more than 70 people died while others waited hours in the water for help. Mamadou Sowe, a survivor, describes clinging helpless to a jerrycan as others drowned around him.
Sowe says he left Gambia because he feared being beaten or worse, put in jail without trial or reason.
“In Gambia there is no free speech… I cannot risk going to jail. My mum and dad are dead, so I have to provide for my family.”
Sowe is just one of 51 million displaced people worldwide – the highest figure since the end of World War II. Economic opportunity, as well as conflict in places in places including the Middle East, Africa and Ukraine means millions are willing to risk life and limb in the hope of a better future abroad.
“The paradox is that at a time when one in seven people around the world are migrants in one form or another, we are seeing a harsh response to migration in the developed world,” wrote director general of the International Organization for Migration, William Lacy Swing, in a report last month.
“Undocumented migrants are not criminals, but human beings in need of protection and assistance, entitled to legal assistance, and deserving respect,” he stated.
But with no legal way to seek asylum from EU countries before entering, and with many border crossings sealed in what critics have dubbed “fortress Europe,” thousands of people are left with few options but to take the perilous journey across the sea from Africa.
In Turkey alone, the number of refugees is nearing two million, but last year some European countries granted less than 50 people refugee status.
Having recommended a significant increase in admissions, as well as the opening of land borders to people requiring asylum, Amnesty International said the death toll in the Mediterranean would only decrease “if safe and regular routes into the EU” were opened.”
This week, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres echoed this sentiment:
“We are failing to heed the lessons from the terrible events of last October, and more and more refugees are drowning trying to reach safety.”
His call to EU countries to work together to bolster Mare Nostrum’s efforts – which has saved well over 100,000 lives since its inception – was answered on October 7 with an announcement by the EU that it planned to launch Operation Triton this November.
But Cecilia Malmström, the E.U. home-affairs commissioner said it was “clear that the Triton operation cannot and will not replace Mare Nostrum.
“The future of Mare Nostrum remains in any case an Italian decision,” she added, reminding the EU that the launch of Triton depended on their financial commitment.
While grassroots organisations have launched initiatives to help migrants, like Watch the Mediterranean’s emergency hotline for people at sea, without sufficient funding and support from governments, it is predicted that thousands more will die trying to reach Europe before the end of this year.
Sowe says if he had the opportunity to speak to EU leaders, he would tell them to “try harder and harder and harder… It’s not good enough.”
Kazkji, who remains without a permanent home in Malta, says he feels trapped by the Dublin Regulation, which requires migrants to stay in their country of entry.
After attempting to go the Netherlands, he was arrested and returned to Malta, where he has been given temporary papers, but is unable to work in order to fund the completion of his studies as an electrical engineer.
“I try to work one day, two days, for 30 euro or 40 euro and after that, the police catch me. They told me if you work again you will go to prison,” he explains.
“Maybe my family thinks that I work, or I complete my studies; they think I have a good life, but I don’t know who I am in Malta… When I sat in the garden, I met a small cat, and when I spoke to her, I became very comforted… Somebody to listen to my story.”
NOTE: Statistics via the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and Amnesty International.Text by Livia Albeck-Ripka / Fabrica — Photograph by Silvia Giralucci