Tuesday, April 28, 2015

African Union's share of responsibility for Mediterranean deaths

Whenever a boat carrying migrants goes down in the Mediterranean, a scenario which happens too often nowadays, criticism of the European Union (EU) and its role in the ongoing humanitarian disaster in the high seas is swift and strong. The African Union (AU) on the other hand is too often treated with kid gloves - even by advocates of "African solutions to African problems," despite the fact that most of the people who die in the course of the perilous journey across the Mediterranean originate from the African continent, a continent under the stewardship of the AU.

According to a report published by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the majority of migrants who died in transit - 64 per cent - in 2014 came from Africa and the Middle East, and the majority of them die while crossing the Mediterranean. Between January and September 2014, 30% of those who died originated from Sub-Saharan Africa. Other deaths include people from the Middle East and North Africa, the Horn of Africa, south East Asia and Central America.

More than 800 people drowned in the Mediterranean on Sunday 19 April 2015 bringing the number of deaths in the Mediterranean this first three and the half months of the year to 1,750, according to the BBC. According to Amnesty International, the Mediterranean claimed 3,500 lives in 2014.

The Italian coast guard told Amnesty International that it had rescued a total of almost 10,000 people since 10 April. According to the human rights group, there has been a more than 50-fold increase in migrant and refugee deaths in the Mediterranean since the beginning of 2015. On 12 April the Italian coast guard reportedly retrieved nine corpses from a capsized wooden boat.

Condemnation of the European Union's role in the crisis is, justifiably, strong and unequivocal. Amnesty published a briefing, Europe's sinking shame: the failure to save refugees and migrants at sea, urging European governments to take immediate and effective action to end the catastrophe in the Mediterranean. John Dalhuisen, Amnesty International's Director for Europe and Central Africa described the crisis as a "humanitarian tragedy of titanic proportions", and said Europe's failure to save thousands of migrants and refugees who run into peril in the Mediterranean has been akin to firefighters refusing to save people jumping from a towering inferno. Governments' responsibility must clearly be not only to put out the fire but to catch those who have stepped off the ledge,"

My view

I share Amnesty International's view of the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean. European governments must do more to save people in distress in the Mediterranean. Securing Europe's borders shouldn't take precedence over innocent human lives. People in migrant boats should not be pushed back without due process under Refugee law. I also share the view that the AU must take its own share of responsibility for migrant deaths. Strong condemnation of the EU's inaction or insufficient action to save lives is justifiable and well-founded. But the AU and African governments must be condemned as well and urged to shoulder their share of responsibility.

It's true that migrants and refugees are jumping from a proverbial inferno, and European government's refusal to save them could be likened to firefighters refusing to save lives. However, focus shouldn't be solely on catching people jumping from the towering inferno. Some focus should be on putting out the fire so that it doesn't spread and claim more lives. This is where the AU comes in.

While the EU should do more to bolster search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean, the AU and governments in countries of origin on their part should ensure that people don't feel the need to embark on clandestine life-threatening journeys that end in the Mediterranean, which is now a mass grave for Africans and other people from the Middle East and elsewhere. The thousands of people dying in the Mediterranean are fleeing conflict, persecution, violence and poverty. In order to stop or at least reduce the number of people trying to reach safety in Europe these problems must be addressed.

As far as I'm concerned, if blame for the loss of African lives in the Mediterranean should be apportioned, the lion's share falls squarely on the shoulders of the AU and governments whose failed policies force people to seek safety and greener pastures across the Mediterranean. But now is not the time to apportion blame. International cooperation is needed to stop the carnage.

It's worthy to mention that the EU cooperates with Africa on migration on bilateral, regional and continental levels. In fact, a summit was held in Brussels on 22 April co-chaired by the president of the European Commission and the chairperson of the African Union commission to discuss migration. But efforts to stop the humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean must go beyond rhetoric, political declarations and summits. Concrete action is needed, such as countering human traffickers, creating jobs on the African continent, stopping persecution and human rights violations that force victims to flee, and bring perpetrators to book.

It's true that as long as Europe doesn't offer adequate safe and regular routes to the continent people seeking asylum and better life for themselves and their children will continue to choose unsafe alternatives. But it's also true that as long as African governments and governments in other regions of origin don't respond to the needs of their people, more people will continue to seek economic and political safety elsewhere - with a good number of them dying in the process in the Mediterranean.

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