In France alone, 57,565 illegal migrants were locked up last year. Survivors of a horrifying journey, reminiscent of transatlantic slavery’s Middle Passage, across the central Mediterranean route, the unlucky will end up in detention and deportation; for those who avoid it, a more disturbing fate awaits. Santorri Chamley investigates the Africans sans papiers
The chilling effects of Europe’s crackdown on immigration were crystallised in June 2016 with the recovery of 458 corpses of mostly African migrants from a boat that sank in the Mediterranean Sea, which divides Europe from North Africa.
When a converted wooden fishing trawler collided with a Portuguese merchant ship responding to its SOS distress signal, it was found to be carrying around 900, mostly African, migrants travelling on the Central Mediterranean route from Libya to Southern Italy. It sank about 60 miles off the coast of Libya and 120 miles from the Italian island of Lampedusa.
With some of the victims’ bodies unlikely to ever be found, Italian authorities have put the death toll at 700. They say nationals of Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Mali, Gambia, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire and Guinea – including women and children – were among those who perished.
Members of the Italian recovery team described scenes of shocking cruelty reminiscent of the slave cargo ships of the past, with five African migrants packed per square metre in the hold by smugglers operating in the booming migrant trafficking trade.
With traffickers charging around €1,000 for each migrant on the Central Mediterranean crossing, those behind the doomed April 2015 crossing would have netted around €800,000.
Increasingly, the journeys of African migrants fleeing conflict, repression and devastating poverty in search of better lives in Europe are ending in tragedy along the migrant route. The death toll is rising in tandem with Europe’s expansion of legal and physical barriers to keep out an unprecedented flow of migrants and refugees from the poor, developing world.
The more the UK and European Union member states fortify themselves, the more desperate migrants and refugees from Africa and elsewhere are forced to risk their lives on treacherous routes to enter their borders. And the Central Mediterranean Sea route is one of the most deadly.
Whereas the crossing on the Eastern Mediterranean route – from Turkey to Greece, which migrants and refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran usually use, takes about an hour, the Central Mediterranean crossing can take up to five days.
In addition, migrant boats on the Central Mediterranean route are usually more packed and regularly carry over 600 people. Smugglers on the route are increasingly moving to double their trade. They do this by towing a boat without a motor to a motorised one, which often leads to boats capsizing due to their heavy load.
According to a new report from the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), 3772 migrants died on the Central Mediterranean route in 2015. This year, 2,600 mostly African migrants have died on the route. The report, Fatal Journeys Volume 2: Identification and Tracing of Dead and Missing Migrants adds that the true number of migrant deaths around the world is greater as countless bodies are never found and missing migrants never reported.
It also says the corpses of over 30 migrants were found in the desert in Niger in June 2016. With little or no official search and rescue efforts to reduce the number of deaths along the migrant route in Africa, it’s impossible to determine the true number of casualties. Significantly, as the report highlights, there is a second devastating tragedy behind the rising death toll of African migrants at sea and on land, which receives scant media attention and policy. For each identified and unidentified migrant body recovered from the sea, on land their families are anxiously left wondering whether they are dead or alive.
Sometimes, families have to wait many years and even lifetimes for confirmation, which means they are never fully able to grieve their loss.
Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean journalist and activist based in Sweden, has first-hand experience of the untold grief and red tape families face when attempting to repatriate the bodies of their loved ones. Eritrean families frequently contact her to help them locate the whereabouts of their loved ones who go missing on the migration route. They do this through Voices of Eritrean Refugees, a weekly radio programme she presents on Radio Erena. The show is broadcast to Eritrea via satellite and shortwave and has become a lifeline for migrating refugees and their families. She says families in Eritrea dread the month of April, when the Central Mediterranean Sea crossing season begins.
The small Horn of Africa country has been hit especially hard by migrant deaths, although many of its nationals fall under the strict definition of refugees under the 1951 UN Refugee Convention. Eritreans migrants and refugees usually leave their country to flee the government of President Isaias Afewerki, who is frequently accused of ruthless repression. Their desperation to leave is underscored by precautionary measures Eritrean women take before embarking on their journey of hope to Europe. They inject themselves with contraceptive drugs because they expect to be raped three times on average on the hazardous journey.
Estefanos says 350 Eritreans lost their lives in the April 2015 tragedy and that many others have perished in at least 4 or 5 other boats on the Central Mediterranean route that the authorities are aware of. On top of this, she adds, four Eritreans perished on 25 May 2016; 460 on 26 May 2016, and 28 on the 28 May, 2016 on the same route.
She states that untold numbers of other Eritrean and African migrants are likely to have drowned on “ghost ships” that are unknown to the authorities and international media. Estefanos meets with families of victims in Italy and elsewhere to investigate what has happened to their loved ones. She says when victims are identified, the main objective of their families is to repatriate their bodies for burial back home.
However, she adds, their mourning and grief is often compounded not only by red tape but also by the Italian authorities’ reluctance to release victims’ bodies. Estefanos says they have not released a single Eritrean body to date, including those of victims that have been identified. Instead, she adds, the Italian authorities usually bury African victims of irregular migration – including children – in unnamed graves in Lampedusa with an identification number on their coffin. She says testimonies from Eritrean survivors show that some migrant victims were kidnapped by Islamic State (Isis) in Libya and boarded doomed boats to flee the Islamist group.
“Nobody cares that so many Africans are being raped, kidnapped and tortured in Libya or are drowning in the Mediterranean while trying to reach Europe in search of a better life. But when a European or American is kidnapped by Islamic State, the whole world hears about it,” she asserts.
Even when African migrants survive the dangerous journey to Europe, its criminalisation of immigration from the poor South means many of those who arrive through irregular routes often face a difficult time in the “promised land”. And in the new fortress Europe of razor wire fences and the paranoid fear of invasion, it seems even unaccompanied minors must be defended against.
This includes some of the estimated 150 mineurs isolés étrangers who arrive in the French port city of Marseille annually. Mostly boys, aged 16 on average – and sometimes as young 13 – they arrive as stowaways on cargo ships from Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Mali, Guinea, Ethiopia and even as far afield as Pakistan and Bangladesh. Poverty and family crises are among the reasons they cite for risking their lives on unsafe journeys to Europe.
In France, unaccompanied minors under the age of 16 are usually regularised if they enter the country through regular routes and a network of organisations exists to protect them. This includes the Association Départementale pour le Développement des Actions de Prévention 13 (ADDAP 13) in Marseille.
Nonetheless, some minors who arrive in France through irregular routes often go underground due to fear of deportation. Like adult migrants denied asylum and work permits, a number of them are forced into a clandestine existence in the shadows. And like adult irregular migrants and refugees, they face latent suspicion and fear.
They often congregate on the streets of Noailles and La Belle de Mai in Marseilles’ first and third districts trying to eke out a living as vendors of cheap goods. Although difficult to quantify, there are an estimated 4,000-8,000 unaccompanied minors in France. The total number of unauthorised migrants or sans papiers (without papers) is projected at around 200,000-400,000.
In the UK, Home Office figures suggest there are 543,000 although the right-wing media and Migration Watch regularly quote 1.1 million as the number of irregular migrants residing here. Although the current narrative on immigration warns us that swarms of economic migrants are illegally trying to enter Europe to steal jobs and take advantage of its generous benefit systems, it fails to give the full picture.
In reality, most irregular migrants enter Europe legally and overstay their visas. This includes students. Moreover, the jobs that are open to these so-called “economic migrants” are normally in the informal sector where employers routinely exploit them as cheap labour.
And as Anzoumane Sissoko, a Paris-based Malian cleaner clearly points out, in France undocumented workers pay taxes and national insurance contributions to the government. The only difference between them and regular French workers, he says, is that they cannot claim benefits because of their irregular status, despite paying into the system.
Sissoko is boldly challenging the status quo. He is leading an unprecedented labour movement for the mass regularisation of France’s undocumented workers against its crackdown on irregular immigration. This includes mass arrests, detention and expulsions as it enforces an annual deportation quota of 30,000 irregular migrants and failed asylum seekers.
According to new report by several French NGOs including La Cimade, 47,565 irregular migrants and refugees were locked up in France and its overseas territories in 2015. The report, Centres Et Locaux: de rétention administrative 2015 says 27,947 were detained in metropolitan France and the rest in its overseas territories. This includes 18,763 in the African Indian Ocean island of Mayotte, 4,378 of which were children. 732 minors were also detained in metropolitan France including 22, in Marseille. Detention is increasingly being used to facilitate mass deportations of ‘unwanted’ migrants and refugees.
Above: An asylum-seeker in the parish hall of Father Rifflard’s house, next to the church in Saint-Etienne, France. With his association Anticyclone, Father Rifflard helps asylum-seekers with applications as well as accommodation.
Sissoko is the lead character in Citizen X: The Sans Papiers Story, a documentary film that this writer is making on France’s extraordinary undocumented workers’ movement. Regardless of the facts, irregular migrants – some of whom are fleeing economic conditions that threaten their lives and physical safety, including climate change – continue to be criminalised.
In the UK, which has witnessed an estimated 57% increase in reported incidents of racism and xenophobia following Brexit (when UK citizens including some ethnic minorities voted to leave the European Union) a caller on a radio programme offered an unnerving solution to Europe’s migrant and refugee crisis.
He said migrants at risk of drowning in the Mediterranean should not be rescued as a deterrent to others planning to enter Europe.
As immigration unleashes disturbingly regressive and inhuman views on race and religion – which right-wing parties including UKIP in the UK and Front National in France are cynically exploiting to fan divisions and hatred – let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that we’ve been exposed to the real debate on this hot issue. The question we should be asking ourselves is why millions of migrants and refugees are risking their lives in search of better lives and a safe haven across the globe.
According to a new report from the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, a record 65.3 million people – one in 113 of the world’s population – were displaced from their homes by conflict and persecution in 2015.
We know that peace and stability have not followed Western military interventions in Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Libya and elsewhere and that some of the follow-on power vacuums have been filled by IS, al-Shabaab and other militant Islamist groups.
We also know that Africa, immensely rich in minerals and natural resources, continues to be plundered by powerful Western multinationals with the collusion of corrupt African leaders while many of its people continue to live in poverty.
We know that pervasive neoliberalism is increasingly pitting worker against worker in a race to the bottom, offshoring wealth and destroying the provision of public services including education and health. And that the ‘feckless’ poor and desperate, homeless and jobless are blamed for their fate in our increasingly inhumane, dog-eat-dog world.
We know that a small but extremely wealthy global elite can buy immigration access to virtually any country in the world and are welcomed on the basis of their often obscene spending sprees despite elbowing out the middle class, paying little or no taxes and driving up property prices in London, Paris and New York.
Knowing all this and what it will really take to address these and other global injustices, it’s unsurprising perhaps, that we would rather scapegoat irregular migrants and refugees as the root cause of all our problems.