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Tragedy at Lampedusa

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On Thursday October 3, a fishing boat with an estimated 500 people on board capsized off the Italian island of Lampedusa. There were only 155 survivors. The rest, an unfortunate mass that included women and children, simply perished. A week later, on Friday October 11, yet another poorly-rigged boat carrying desperate asylum-seekers capsized in the Canal of Sicily. This time, 27 people drowned, while a combined Italian-Maltese rescue team managed to salvage 221 bedraggled survivors.

Both incidents have served two related purposes. First, and no doubt due to the huge death toll involved, they have drawn global attention to the plight of immigrants and asylum-seekers tantalised by the ‘short’ 113 kilometers separating northern Africa from Europe. Second, and even if only fleetingly, they have put global migration back on the policy agenda of western European countries and the United States, a good thing at a time when pro-immigration reform, especially in the latter, appears to have been bogged down in political quicksand.          

Still, the reaction from various European stakeholders has been commendable. While Jose Manuel Barroso, the President of the European Commission, declared the deaths unacceptable, the Italian government called for a day of mourning as well as a minute’s silence to be held in schools across the country. It also announced the arrest of the Tunisian captain of the boat involved in the October 3 shipwreck. For his part, the governor of Sicily, Rosario Crocetta, declared a state of emergency. Finally, from the Vatican, Pope Francis, taking a decidedly moral stance, declared the entire incident a shame.

These affecting responses contrasted poignantly with the loud silence from African governments and the African Union. The silence is a worrying reminder of the attitude of indifference for which majority of African governments have become justly notorious. It is all the more dispiriting because it goes to the heart of the very reason why ordinary citizens have continued to flee Somalia and Eritrea, two north-east African countries whose nationals constituted the majority of the victims of the two shipwrecks. While, in the case of Somalia, there is, in all honesty, hardly a state to speak of, Isaias Afewerki’s my-way-or-the-highway rule (he has occupied his country’s highest office since 1993) in Eritrea has produced a lethal combination of economic destitution and political closure. A 2011 Human Rights Watch described the grim situation in the country thus: ‘Thousands of Eritreans are incarcerated without charge, trial, or opportunity to appeal. They are denied access to lawyers or family. The government releases no information about numbers of prisoners, their places of confinement, whether they remain alive (sic), or why they are being held. Many detainees simply disappear.’”

The truth of the matter therefore is that the political and economic situation in Eritrea and Somalia is the prime instigator of human flight from both countries; and to the extent that the same argument applies in varying degrees to other African countries, it stands to reason that any proposals for dealing with the situation must take this factor seriously. Until African leaders recognise this and begin to take appropriate economic and political measures, thousands of Africans will continue to risk life and limb in an effort to get out of the continent. For instance, annually, thousands of Nigerian youths cross the Sahara desert in a desperate attempt to escape the harsh economic conditions at home. Few succeed. A distressing illustration of this widespread desperation is the incident in late August when 13-year old Daniel Ihekina stowed away in the in the wheel well of a Benin-to-Lagos Arik plane, thinking that it was bound for the United States.

While African leaders certainly need to put their houses in order, Euro-American leaders must realise the necessity of going beyond mere moral condemnation, especially as it stands in contradistinction to the thoroughly dehumanising and illogical immigration policies often pursued by them. It is an established fact that a great majority of asylum seekers from African (and Arab, Asian and Latin Americans) countries are essentially victims of dreadful leadership. Western countries aggravate the situation with arbitrary visa regimes.    

A comprehensive strategy for avoiding a recurrence of Lampedusa must give both dimensions equal weight.

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