Deaths at the Sea: the new middle passage for Africans?

Reading some of the African trending news stories over the last weeks, one is surprised by how little attention was given to the crisis at the Mediterranean Sea where over 100 African souls were lost while trying to reach Europe.
Joe B. Jakes
Joe B. Jakes

Reading some of the African trending news stories over the last weeks, one is surprised by how little attention was given to the crisis at the Mediterranean Sea where over 100 African souls were lost while trying to reach Europe.

More than 500 African migrants were on the boat when it caught fire on October 3rd, and apparently the panic caused it to capsize into the Mediterranean.

This is not the first major incident involving African deaths at the sea, the world only remembers too well of more than 1,800 men, women and children that drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in heavily overcrowded, unseaworthy boats in 2011.

And guess what? The lack of interest in rescuing these migrants by Italian coastguards was already well documented, but such indifference was exposed when about 68 people choked to death in the glare eyes of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces that refused to rescue them.

These actions were morally inexcusable and triggered an inquiry by the Council of Europe which later concluded that the NATO forces had the knowledge that people were in danger, but in the end failed to launch a rescue operation.

Clearly, the responsibility to rescue those in boats is enshrined under the law of sea; although some jurisdictions and rights are open to interpretation in any case, especially when people want to play blame-games. 

For the latest horror, it appears Italian rescuers saved more than 150 people, but at least 114 died, including a pregnant woman and two children, according to reports from local media.

The central point here is not and should never be about success or failure in rescue operations, instead some soul searching questions need asking. What are the underlying causes for such dreadful journeys? Can international community be accountable?

Who should be blamed for these deaths at the seas? Do African leaders have a partial or full responsibility? Or the sole responsibility lies in the hands of the migrants and their families?

The international community as a whole should be ashamed for the continuing indifference, and African leadership is entirely to blame for failing to treat ‘cancerous’ diseases such as poverty and conflicts that are forcing Africans into this suicidal journey.

As the continent’s leadership remain silent on this tragedy, many of their Sub-Saharan African citizens are trying to cross the pathetic valley of the death (desert) and the death trap (sea) risking their lives in the hope of a better day in the unforgiving Europe.

There have been talks of an economic revival in Africa with outstanding statistics in terms of economic growth and opportunity, but the reality for many in the continent is that of misery and despair.

Like the trans-Atlantic slave trade, Africans are being sold cheap, promised the riches, lured into broken boats with the hope to reach the promise land and ultimately left to die at seas in the 21st century.

And you know what? Only for the benefit of human traffickers who have absolutely no moral compass, but only desire to exploit the hopes of the vulnerable and pocket hundreds of thousands of dollars.

These tragedies remind us of many failed policies in development and migration in both the developed and developing worlds.

First, this is an indicative of African leaders’ inability to provide the basic services and create economic opportunities to all citizens despite the resources, foreign investments and development aid.

The latest warning on inequality by the World Bank (WB) report “Africa’s Pulse” reinforces the exact point, and the root causes of why people risk their lives must be dealt with at home.

Second, the Europe’s ineffective immigration systems are always reactionary and defensive in nature and often ignore international conventions which include the protection of those at risk, not only for those at the Sea but also those in the mainland who need adequate treatments.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, there have been many calls for action to avoid future disasters, but more Africans are probably preparing for this journey which means more deaths are expected in the coming weeks and months, and that is if and only reported.

Whether the European Union (EU) has the political will to work collectively with countries mostly affected such as Italy and Malta in rescuing distressed boats, allowing safe passages for migrant boats, or doing more to stop the human traffickers is something remain to be seen.

Ultimately, the vacuum of responsibility when it comes to saving African lives at Sea needs to be filled, in particular by the EU which has a duty to protect those landing on its shores.

Other issues of global and structural inequality need addressing, and developing countries that persecute and fail to provide for their people must held accountable.

The author is a researcher in Diplomacy and International Law based in the United Kingdom

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