They are immigrants, and they are pouring into all available waterfronts in the European Axis. They have been arriving in hundreds and thousands. Some of them are weak; some are only kept strong by hope for a better future. So many of these immigrants from war-torn countries die daily and are carried in body bags at the end of these journeys. The less fortunate ones become the food of choice for creatures under the sea. It is dubbed the journey into the unknown and undertaken only by the bold.
A look at them shows these men, women and children have prepared themselves for the worst, as they take probably the biggest risks of their lives. They are decked in layers of thick clothing, ill-fitting coats and apparels; they appear from a distance like rainbow colours across the sky. They are of different languages and colours, yet united by a single aim as they crammed themselves in the choice means of travelling – unsteady boats.
To them, the Mediterranean Sea is the “standing” block to better lives for them and their families. This “short cut” of getting to Europe is described by the UN Agency for Refugees as the “most lethal route in the world”. But to the immigrants, there is no stopping them or their dreams. No matter how vast and intimidating the waters may look, to them, it is a “to do or to die” business. Just like the Israelites in the wilderness, the eyes of these immigrants are on the prize – the imagined “Promised Land”.
There may be no Moses to part the sea for them, but they have infinite trust in their confidence and willpower to sail through. For days and nights, they prepare their minds for the “rough” journey on the seas. The people smugglers do as much to keep the confidence level up. They imagine themselves as football coaches giving pep talks to their players before matches. The immigrants are given “health and safety” tips and a few talks on “fire exits”. Don’t ask me where the exits are on dingy boats that float at the mercy of the sea.
But you have to praise the people smugglers for, at least, thinking of giving the immigrants a false hope that help is just a call away. Moreover, they have to justify the huge sums of money they collect from these immigrants. But that is as far as compassion goes, as they are abandoned immediately the rickety boats set sail. The contract between the two parties is over at this point, while the immigrants left at the mercy of the sea. The ones who make it to the other side of the sea have long tales for the European coastguards.
These immigrants have put everything on the line to cross the seas and begin a new life in Europe. They come in different shapes, sizes, ages, religions, sexes and orientations. But they are united by one dream – life in Europe. Yet for them, this dream is very tall, as they have no legal means of reaching their destination. Their dreams do not accommodate applying for travelling visas to enter the continent. Some of them do not even have passports and those who do, know they stand no chance of getting visas stamped on them. Yet they cannot “derail” their own dreams of a life in Europe.
They are from Africa, the Middle East, South and Central Asia. They are Libyans, Somalians, Eritreans, Sudanese, Iraqis, Syrians, a handful of Nigerians (yes, Nigerians) etc. Apart from sharing a dream of better lives in Europe, these people are also bonded by the insecurities in their respective countries. They all know what poverty is, and also recognise the political instability and civil wars in their countries will never throw opportunities their ways.
They are desperate and with no thoughts of their personal safety, surrender their fates to the workings of the people smugglers. To some, attempting a “swim” across the Mediterranean is better than staying put in their countries where death knocks on doors at will – via kidnapping, execution or suicide bombing. To most, they would rather die on the European soil than be caught by “easy” death in their home countries where the lives of citizens like them mean nothing to their leaders.
For as long as history can remember, thousands of immigrants have been using every means to cross to their land of opportunities – Europe. It is, therefore, a source of thriving business for men (and women) who make money exploiting desperate people. For a one way trip on a rickety boat, the members of the cartel collect thousands of dollars from the immigrants. This is far more than a normal cruise liner will charge for a “round the world” tour.
The plights of these immigrants need more than ordinary pity from the world. We have sat back far too long, watching some countries become ungovernable and unsafe for citizens. The look of relief on the faces of these immigrants as they file off rescue boats tell the story of what they think is their “lucky” escape. They do not mind that they have now become numbers, for identification. They thank their stars for making it ashore.
They reflect on some of the people they started the journey with but could not make it to the other side. Some died on the sea due to exhaustion, lack of water, lack of food and some thrown overboard after minor arguments. All these had no opportunity of a decent burial. The vast water “ate” them like thousands of others before them. A few got into the Promised Land in body bags and straight for burial in a land they had dreamt would afford them decent lives.
In the midst of these, there are cries of new-born babies and children. These are the innocents who are thrown into the situation by their parents’ decisions. They have no say in determining their destinies. They are luckier than the adults though, as Europe does not turn its back on children.
Every day, the pictures of these arriving immigrants are shown on international news channels. Because of the unprecedented number risking their lives in this venture, the world is slowly waking up to its responsibilities. The response from the European Union, although seen as impracticable by analysts, has been very encouraging. The Union is proposing more funding and resettlement of migrants’ quota to member states.
The migrants’ allocation to EU members has generated a lot of controversies in some countries. The United Kingdom (then) Home Secretary Theresa May had voiced opposition to the proposal, which she said the country would fight against. She is not alone on this, as many of the EU member states are distancing themselves from the proposal.
For now, the immigrants are cooling their heels in detention centres as the world decides their fate. The first duty of the west, according to the no-nonsense UK’s Theresa May, is separating the economic migrants (?) from the genuine refugees. To her, the former should be shipped back across the Mediterranean Sea to wherever they came from.
The problem of these migrants goes beyond containing them in the European corridor. There has to be a permanent solution to it. The solution lies in making sure peace reigns in the countries where these immigrants come from. While some of the governments should share the blame in the destabilisations of these countries, their main assignment right now is encouraging the development of democracy.
First published in this column on 17th May 2015