A mass grave in the Mediterranean

April 28, 2016

The sinking of another ship filled with migrants is the most devastating loss of life in a year--but the policies of Fortress Europe will claim more lives, writes Nicole Colson.

THE HUMAN toll of Fortress Europe and its brutal policies was shown in sharp relief this month when another ship carrying refugees sank in the Mediterranean off Italy, killing as many as 500 people, according to survivors' accounts.

These deaths should be laid at the feet of European rulers and their inhumane policies toward refugees and migrants.

At a press conference in Athens on April 21, Muaz Mahmud and another survivor recounted how, while still far from shore, smugglers forced hundreds of people from one boat onto an already overcrowded vessel that began to list, and then to sink.

Some 41 survivors--including three women, a toddler and 37 men--mainly from Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, were rescued after drifting at sea for three days and taken to Kalamata, Greece. But hundreds who couldn't swim or who were trapped on the overcrowded ship with no means to escape didn't make it.

"My wife and my baby drowned in front of me," Muaz told a BBC reporter.

In a separate incident the same week, six people died and 108 were rescued when a rubber dinghy sank off the coast of Libya, according to the humanitarian group SOS Méditerranée.

Survivors from a boat that capsized crossing the Mediterranean from Libya to Europe
Survivors from a boat that capsized crossing the Mediterranean from Libya to Europe

These deaths are a horrific replay of an incident that occurred almost exactly one year before, when some 800 people died in a similar mass drowning near the Italian island of Lampedusa.

Italian Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni told Reuters that this latest tragedy is "another strong reason for Europe to commit itself not to build walls."

As the humanitarian medical group Doctors Without Borders commented on Twitter, "2016, the Mediterranean is a mass grave."


SOME REPORTERS were shocked that the survivors of the ship didn't express their gratitude at being rescued, but instead were angry at having been brought to Greece. But in Greece, they will almost certainly be deported--they won't qualify for asylum if they are classified as economic migrants, rather than war refugees, as they are expected to be.

"The crew of the ship said they were taking us to Italy, but instead we ended up here in Greece," one Somali survivor bitterly told the BBC's Will Ross.

Although not widely reported, when the ship with the survivors first reached port in Greece, the migrants initially refused to disembark. According to Ross, a log from the ship, the Eastern Confidence, notes "08:50-09:30 Negotiation...Refugees refused to disembark; 09:30-10:00 Port Authorities seek advice from Ministry of Maritime; 10:00 Additional Hellenic Coast Guard personnel onboard; 10:20 Finally refugees decided to disembark without force."

That it would take the threat of force to get the survivors to disembark after such a terrible ordeal should show the sense of desperation felt by those who are choosing to make the dangerous--and all too often deadly--crossing over the Mediterranean to seek shelter in Europe, whether they are technically economic migrants or refugees.

In fact, as the route to Greece has slowly been closed off, the number of those seeking shelter in Italy has increased sharply following a new agreement between the European Union (EU) and the Turkish government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Under the deal that went into effect in early April, refugees arriving in Greece--a large number of them having fled wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan--can now be deported to Turkey. In exchange, the EU will pay Turkey $6.7 billion in aid and promise to eventually take in an equal number of refugees from Turkish camps.

Human rights activists have strongly condemned the agreement as illegal under international law--since refugees are supposed to have the right to apply for asylum in the country in which they land--a giveaway to Erdoğan's repressive regime, and an abuse of refugees and migrants.

The agreement has forced humanitarian groups, including Doctors Without Borders and the United Nations' refugee aid agency, to suspend or scale back operations in Greece in an effort to refuse to participate in the mandatory detention of refugees and migrants.

The already deplorable conditions in Greece's refugee camps have reportedly worsened in the weeks since the EU deal with Turkey went into full effect. In addition to overcrowding, lack of sanitation and threats of infectious disease outbreaks, some infant refugees on the island of Chios were being provided just a quarter of the milk they need each day, the Guardian reported:

Approximately 25 babies under the age of six months, whose mothers are unable to breast-feed, are being given roughly 100 milliliters of milk formula just once a day...

Since the deal came into effect on March 20, more than 6,000 people have been held on Greek islands, shortly after their arrival, in conditions that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have described as appalling. Some 1,100 are trapped inside the Vial camp on Chios, roughly 40 percent of them children.

One Afghan refugee detainee who fled Taliban death threats after working with British forces told the Guardian that he has had to mix water and bread together to feed his 5-month-old daughter. "They are only giving us half a cup of milk for all 24 hours--but that's not enough. There's no more milk for lunch or dinner or during the night. This is a big problem. There are maybe 24 or 25 babies under six months," he said.

"She is crying always," he said of his baby daughter. "She just wants milk, but [instead], she has stomach pain."

The Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) confirmed the reports. Dan Tyler, the NRC's protection and advocacy officer on Chios, added, "[I]t stems beyond baby milk: there is a lack of basic care for children. There is a hygiene crisis. Infant children are sleeping in highly inappropriate arrangements, on the floor."

The priorities of Europe's leaders are starkly laid out: Money to bribe the Turkish regime to stem the flow of refugees, but nothing for the basic human needs of refugee children.

"They are not treating us like humans," the Afghan refugee told the Guardian. "[W]hen I ask what is happening, they just say 'go back', nothing else. This is not a camp, it is a prison."


NOW, AS the route to Greece has been increasingly cut off, more people have been attempting to cross to Italy.

Some 6,000 made the journey from Libya to Italy over a three-day period in late April, according to the International Organization for Migration. In all, some 9,600 migrants crossed the Mediterranean to Italy in March of this year alone, while nearly 26,500 arrived in Greece after travelling from Turkey in the same month.

In all, some 181,000 migrants and refugees arrived in Europe via the Mediterranean so far this year, and at least 1,232 have lost their lives in the attempt at the crossing.

Such deaths are entirely predictable and preventable. They are the consequence of policies attempting to deter desperate people from traveling to the EU--without acknowledging that they are forced to flee precisely because they believe it is more dangerous to stay where they are than risk their lives.

But beyond the general refusal to open Fortress Europe and allow the refugees in, there is growing evidence that EU leaders deliberately chose to enact policies to deter refugees that they knew would lead to an increase of deaths in the waters of the Mediterranean.

According to a report released in April--"Death By Rescue: The Lethal Effects Of The EU's Policies Of Non-assistance At Sea"--by researchers in the UK, despite knowing that deaths in the Mediterranean would rise, the European Union decided two years ago to get rid of an Italian-led rescue operation known as the Mare Nostrum in favor of a program called Triton, overseen by the European border agency Frontex.

Triton cut the number of search-and-rescue boats in the Mediterranean and instead emphasized "deterring" migrants from coming to the EU, placing the burden rescue operations on ill-equipped vessels. At the time it was implemented, researchers note, an internal assessment from Frontex itself warned that if Triton was not properly planned, it "would likely result in a higher number of fatalities."

The result, say the researchers, has been a spike in the deaths of migrants and refugees as a direct result of poorly executed rescues--an additional 1,500 lives lost that researchers accuse EU leaders of "killing by neglect."

Charles Heller, from Goldsmiths, University of London and a co-author of the report, told Sky News that the deaths were a deliberate policy choice by EU leaders:

I would rather argue that this was a case of institutionalized willful neglect, and that European policymakers and Frontex have made themselves guilty of killing by omission. Simply arguing that it was a mistake is insufficient.

And if, as we show, policymakers and European agencies decided to disregard the risk their policy would entail for migrants, they should be held accountable for that negligence.

No one should be forced to risk their lives as they flee war and economic desperation. With no end in sight to the refugee crisis, we need to renew the calls for Europe's leaders to open the borders and let the refugees in.

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