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  • Migrants in the Mediterranean: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

    | Photo: Alessandro Penso/MSF

Published 12 August 2015
Doctors Without Borders provides psychological first aid to traumatized migrants and has helped save over 11,000 migrant lives in the Mediterranean.

In a recent report, the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea found such rights to be few and far between in the African nation.

Detecting an “overall context of a total lack of rule of law,” the Commission suggested that the Eritrean government’s “violations in the areas of extrajudicial executions, torture (including sexual torture), national service and forced labor may constitute crimes against humanity.”

The national military service, which is “indefinite” in duration and thus conducive to “slavery-like practices,” means the state has a permanent pool of bodies that can be forcibly put to work. Because of the dismal domestic set-up, the U.N. estimates that 5,000 persons flee Eritrea per month — many of them crossing Ethiopia, Sudan, and Libya and then boarding decrepit vessels bound for Europe (or, as the case may be, the bottom of the sea).

The Eritrean government, on the other hand, has a slightly different opinion on matters. According to the country’s foreign ministry, the exodus is a result not of wanton human rights violations but rather of human trafficking projects: “The principal objective of this organized crime is to prevent Eritrea and its people from defending their sovereignty by dispersing and debilitating their human resources.”

Furthermore, the official line goes, the figure of 5,000 per month is exaggerated — with some of the exaggeration allegedly thanks to other varieties of African migrants who claim Eritrean nationality for asylum purposes.

Last month, Reuters reported that Eritrean Ambassador Tesfamicael Gerahtu had told the news agency “there was an international ‘conspiracy’ to tarnish Eritrea, saying Western nations had in part been swayed to act against it by regional rivals.”

Italy, for one, is apparently playing right into the hands of the conspirators, with the Italian foreign ministry recording a total of 34,329 Eritrean arrivals to the country’s shores last year. In the first six months of this year, 18,676 incoming Eritreans were tallied.

RELATED: The Making of the Migration Crisis

During a recent visit to Rome, I had the opportunity to visit the Baobab center near Tiburtina train station, a facility that caters primarily to Eritrean migrants transiting to northern Europe. I was accompanied by Ahmad Al Rousan, cultural mediator with Medici Senza Frontiere/Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which provides psychological first aid to traumatized migrants, in addition to other services; since May, MSF has helped save over 11,000 migrant lives via search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean.

Al Rousan told me that according to the volunteers who manage the Baobab center, the place is meant to accommodate between 170 and 180 persons but sometimes houses up to 800. When I visited, the guests included a two-week-old baby, reportedly born on the beach in Libya shortly prior to cast off for Europe, and a young woman who was weeping uncontrollably, having just received news that her brother had been kidnapped while attempting his own journey to Italy.

Kidnapping is a common hurdle for Europe-bound African migrants, often costing families thousands of dollars to extricate the traveler from captivity. Other regular features of the migration process include torture, beatings, and sexual abuse — particular specialties at Libyan immigration detention centers. Earlier this year, Amnesty International cited the testimony of one detainee who described the beating death of a pregnant woman by detention center officials.

But the real victim of the whole panorama is, of course, the Eritrean government, whose “human resources” are being “dispers[ed] and debilitat[ed]” by international conspiracies. As Reuters notes, Eritrea has “long accused its much larger neighbor Ethiopia …  and others in the region of trying to destabilize it.”

Photo: Alessandro Penso/MSF

It would seem, however, that the Eritrean regime is doing a fairly decent job of self-destabilizing. In Rome I spoke with “Jerry,” a migrant from Eritrea in his 20s who arrived to Sicily in 2013 following a harrowing journey across the Mediterranean. Remarking on the impossibility of planning a future when one is condemned to an eternity of military service, Jerry maintained that “the only thing you can hope is to get out.”

And while Italians and other Europeans lament, despair, and fly into fits of rage over the perceived migrant invasion of their God-given space, it’s important to recall that present migration trends are rooted in centuries of destabilizing military and economic behavior by — among others — the components of “Fortress Europe.”

After all, the colonial and imperial pillaging of a continent necessarily entails long-term repercussions. Unfortunately, certain types of collective memory and self-awareness tend to be shorter term — which is how you end up in a situation in which former European colonizers unabashedly criminalize human movement in the opposite direction.

Regarding the current era of superficially politer international plunder known as globalization, Jesse A. Myerson writes at Jacobin Magazine: “Multinational free trade agreements, supranational financial institutions, and transnational corporations ensure that capital can float between nations with all the ease of a monarch butterfly. Labor, on the other hand, remains under the jurisdiction of border-obsessed states.”

But since laborers still want to do normal human things like eat and hope, they will inevitably challenge imposed frontiers, with countless migrants perishing for no other crime than having been born on the wrong side of the fence. For this criminal reality, abusive governments and human smugglers are far from the only entities to blame. Borders, too, are a violation of human rights.

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