By: Donato Guido Loforese

Donato follows the journey of an asylum seeker who travels from his home in Eritrea to Libya and across the Mediterranean Sea into Italy. His journey highlights many of the issues the international community is facing in dealing with the worst refugee crisis in the new century.

“Buongiorno Guido, next Monday I will leave the CIE [center for identification and expulsion] in Lampedusa and I will go to the C.A.R.A. [accommodation center for asylum seekers] in Bari, where I’ll likely receive the recognition of my refugee status. Insh’Allah.” – Rajab

The Journey Across Land:

One month after that conversation, I met Rajab, a young Eritrean man, in person. He first made contact with me before he began the merciless journey across Africa and the Mediterranean Sea, northward into Italy. Rajab defined himself as a “lucky son,” because the women in his family collected the necessary money for a privileged – but nonetheless cruel – path across the Sahara desert to the Libyan coast with a commercial trucker; most people make this journey on foot or at the hands of human smugglers.  In recent years this land route from Sub-Saharan Africa to the North has been increasingly used by migrants fleeing violence, poverty, religious extremism and corrupt or ineffective governments. The journey is complicated by the many civil wars and terrorist groups operating across the region. John Ging of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that 80,000 people make the journey across the Sahara each year. Although it is difficult to track the number of migrant deaths in the desert, Gabriele del Grande, a journalist who follows this migration-flow, estimates approximately 2,000 yearly deaths in the desert. Libya’s lack of effective law enforcement and breakdown of government since the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi has allowed human traffickers to operate with relative impunity and is therefore one of the main hubs for migrants leaving for Europe.

The Journey Across the Sea:

Rajab was pursuing his last hopes of making it to Italy on an expensive boat journey, organized by African human traffickers.  Rajab’s boat left Libya two weeks behind schedule, in the cover of a night full of insurrections.

“Three days in a tiny and crowded rubber-boat. No space for stretching arms and legs, and although everybody prays and sings for taking comfort, it is the fear of dying in the blue sea that consumes your body and your mind.”

Photo Credit:  UNHCR / A. Rodriguez

Photo Credit: UNHCR / A. Rodriguez

As the world faces the worst refugee crisis in recorded history, hundreds of thousands are now risking their lives every year fleeing conflict, violence and instability. Many of those attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea originate from Eritrea, Somalia, and, increasingly so, from Syria. In 2014 alone there was a record 3,419 deaths in the Mediterranean sea; that number is already over 1,800 in 2015- on track to far surpass last year’s record.

European countries have been unable to successfully stop the flow of human trafficking across the sea, and issues of safety and jurisdiction further complicate efforts to rescue those who have already embarked on the dangerous journey. The UNHCR, UNHCHR and Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for International Migration and Development issued a joint statement calling the crisis “a tragedy of epic proportions” and called upon the European Union to enact a more comprehensive strategy.

To help deal with this regional crisis, Mare Nostrum– an Italian “military and humanitarian operation” which had previously bore the heavy burden alone – was replaced with the Frontex joint-operations Triton and Poseidon. The Mare Nostrum operation, initiated in October 2013, had transformed the Sicily Canal into something similar to a military base where the two goals were to rescue migrants and combat illegal trafficking. The operation was too difficult and expensive for Italy to conduct alone, so in August 2014 the European Commission established Operation Triton, securing cooperation from 15 EU member states. With a monthly budget of € 2.9 million, the operation has assets consisting of five ships, two surveillance aircrafts and seven teams for gathering intelligence and for conducting screening and identification processing via Frontex – the European Union’s border security agency.

The new operation is limited to patrolling the border areas and does not cover search and rescue in the Sea. It has been criticized from the start by many observers, with Amnesty International calling it a “face-saving, not a life-saving operation.” Indeed, the initial results proved even less successful than Operation Mare Nostrum.

The question has been raised as to whether expanding missions into the high seas, rather than just within territorial seas and limited contiguous zones, would give a relief to this scenario. But doing so, along with setting up a naval block on Libyan coasts, as has been considered by some in the EU, raises concerns of national sovereignty. This is why the European Union is seeking a UN Resolution, but so far, to no avail. The approaches taken by the international community thus far have only focused on fragmented aspects of the problem, and seem to ignore the root cause of why people embark on such a dangerous path.

Problems on Arrival:

“We move away from Eritrea, and other African countries, with an deep belief that otherwise we would be sure to die. Over there we live a nightmare, we don’t have any rights, we don’t have any future to grant to our children. We did not decide to be born there. We have the same wishes that everybody has, but we are unable to realize them in Eritrea.”

Nearly all measures to address this issue are focused on ending the trafficking rather than better implementing existing EU regulations and directives established to protect asylum-seekers. The UNHCR warned in December 2014 that “the international community was losing its focus on saving lives amid confusion among coastal nations and regional blocs over how to respond to the growing number of people making risky sea journeys in search of asylum or migration.”  UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said some governments were placing a higher priority on keeping foreigners out, than on upholding asylum. Many European states, particularly those where migrants first arrive, such as Italy where over 170,000 arrived by sea last year, are failing to live up to their legal obligations. To share the responsibility of processing and providing relief to these asylum seekers, it has been proposed that migrants be distributed across Europe.

The Refugee Convention of 1951 defines a refugee as a person who “for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality and is unable or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country; or … is unwilling to return to it.” Together with the Dublin Convention, these legal instruments set the foundation for a joint effort between states. But time and again, a lack of political will has stalled the process. And the economic conditions in several countries has political leaders more unwilling and even aggressively against the idea of accepting foreigners into their country. The EU made clear its approach to this situation – and it risks developing into a form of violent humanitarianism. But the focus needs to shift to providing rights to migrants who have risked everything to arrive on European shores as a last chance for a better future. European States need to find a way to fulfill the vision of the Refugee Convention and afford these vulnerable asylum seekers with the protections it was set out to give.