Withdrawal of support for the planned search and rescue operations in 2014 was meant to reduce the number of migrants attempting the Mediterranean, it hasn’t


In 2015, the number of migrants became 30 times higher than the year before. On the 15th of October 2014, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Anelay of St Johns) released a statement that the UK Government will no longer ‘support planned search and rescue operations in the Mediterranean’. She argued further that:

‘We believe that they create an unintended “pull factor”, encouraging more migrants to attempt the dangerous sea crossing and thereby leading to more tragic and unnecessary deaths. The Government believes the most effective way to prevent refugees and migrants attempting this dangerous crossing is to focus our attention on countries of origin and transit, as well as taking steps to fight the people smugglers who wilfully put lives at risk by packing migrants into unseaworthy boats’.

This statement however, completely ignores the motivation behind why some of these migrants flee.

Thomas (not his real name): a migrant from Eritrea and a survivor of the ‘dangerous sea’, described his experience to me in an interview about his journey to which he refers as the ‘human rights land’.

Thomas: ‘The endless national (military) service, (where) people stay for unknown period(s) of time, for example, I have stayed for 15 years (from) 1990 to 2015’.

The indefinite military service is an obligation that every citizen of Eritrea has to carry out against their will. This usually occurs when people turn 18. According to Thomas this was a practice of ‘enslavement’.

T: ‘Anyone and everyone who can carry a weapon or even just stand on their feet are required to be in the service’.

Thomas explains he’d served in the military whilst suffering from minor health problems. These issues developed over the 15-year period due to immense stress received from military pressures — especially the attitude that once you are a soldier, you are expected to follow orders regardless of whether or not your physical body is able to. Thomas admitted that these orders had become increasingly difficult for him to follow and so he decided ‘enough was enough’.

The only way out of Eritrea without risking prosecution is to ask for a discharge, but this is only available if Eritrean authorities approve the request. Having received rejection after rejection, this process proved futile and so Thomas and others fled.

In his own words, Thomas just wanted: ‘to live in a human rights land, and countries which give interest to these things (values) are countries like European ones’.

Thomas is just a microcosm of a large population within Eritrea who are willing to go against the government’s human rights abuses, so fortunately for him he didn’t need to travel alone. However, travelling was an issue. The boats were ‘unseaworthy’ just like Baroness Anelay described. This was unexpected as Thomas like the other migrants had been sold the illusion that they would be leaving on a ‘ship’ operated by smugglers. In Thomas’ words, a ‘faulty fishing boat’ was the reality, measuring about ’30 metres long’. So ‘unseaworthy’ is really an understatement for what actually takes place.

They met with the fishing boat at the Egyptian border, which was not the worst part of their journey. Before boarding the boat, the smugglers placed Thomas on a fruit plantation farm near the sea where he met other migrants from Eritrea, Egypt and Syria. These migrants were now in a group which would cross the sea in the same boat, but first they had to wait for cars and lorries to transport them to the border where their boat was waiting.

T: ‘They put you on a lorry and cover you with a tent, and you sit like cartons, like stacked boxes over each other, it was (he demonstrates by sitting down with his knees pressed to his chest and arms securing the position tightly) packed and you wouldn’t believe the amounts of Egyptian kids there were sitting with us, everyone was so close to each other’.

In Thomas’ group there were roughly 85 people in total. Once they had reached the port though, they met another group which consisted of 150 people. They then sailed out with around 230 people from Alexandria. After a day and a half, there was another boat waiting for Thomas and his group of migrants which would take them the remainder of the journey. However, this boat was even smaller than the faulty fishing boat, and already had 100 people in it.

T: ‘We were sitting so tight together, too close together, you couldn’t even stretch your legs. Sometimes, though, we were allowed to walk and stand up, but no one can do it as they wish in order to maintain balance; it’s forbidden, and the ship is small, you have to stay down to prevent capsize’.

There were now around 330 people on the fishing boat; they stayed in these conditions for seven days. The weather was scorching hot as they had left around summertime, and so they would take it in turns to go into the fridge downstairs to cool down, because it was ‘very hot and suffocating’.

It was a fishing boat, and normally you would assume that there aren’t many members on it. This stereotype proved useful, allowing the boat to appear empty if cruisers went by. The crew members also made sure that all the passengers stayed down. This, alongside the damaged condition of the boat, made it seem like there were no migrants on board when in reality there were 300 plus.

T: ‘We didn’t want any coastguards to see us, whether they are Egyptian coastguards, Libyan coastguards or Italian coastguards’. The Italian coastguards however caught the fishing boat and took all  the migrants on it including Thomas, placing them on navy ships which they sailed on for two days towards Naples. From there on, Thomas managed to escape the camp he was placed in and made his journey here to the UK.

Following his ordeal, Thomas is keen to stress that with every possible route there were and still are risks involved. An example was the avoided Libyan route despite it being faster than the Egyptian one. He recalls his refusal to take this path as he was aware of Libya’s political health, namely the lack of government legitimacy. Libyan gangs were rumoured to be positioned at the border competing for territory there. The risk of being shot by them if one is perceived as a threat to the country — on suspicion of terrorism for instance — was also very high. Similarly, certain areas of Sudan were avoided in order to prevent the chances of capture by traffickers.

Human Rights Watch in February 2014 published a ‘Trafficking and torture report’ which included accounts from victims, abusers and witnesses. The report mentions that areas like Kassala in Eastern Sudan are hotspots where traffickers are common. They kidnap vulnerable migrants and transport them to the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt where they are tortured and sold. Occasionally the migrants are held to ransom and the victims’ families receive phone calls where they hear their loved ones screaming for help. The numbers of victims of traffickers are so high that people within Thomas’ group knew of someone who had been abused. The worst part of the journey was having these fears chase you wherever you go, not knowing what’s going to happen next.

If this was you, after all the obstacles you faced just to reach the border followed by the ‘dangerous sea’ voyage, wouldn’t you think you earned the right to be saved?

Maurice Wren from the Guardian argued: ‘People fleeing atrocities will not stop coming if we stop throwing them life-rings’, a valid and significant point. He uses the Mediterranean route from Libya as an example and describes the decision to migrate as a ‘rational’ one. He further argues that since the country is in ‘flames’ the logical instinct will be water-related . . . so taking a boat across the sea is the human thing to do. This of course emphasises the main point that these ‘migrants’ are merely humans trying to survive.

The United Nations High Commissioner for refugees  has stated that these migrants would come ‘anyway’ due to various reasons. Amongst them, escaping violence as a result of civil war in places such as Syria and Libya has proven to be the most basic. It is mainly the war-weary people of Eritrea, Syria and Somalia that have fled to Europe the most.

I asked Thomas for his thoughts on the ‘pull factor’ theory. Arguing from his own experience he said that people are trying to escape the dangers at home and if they remain in countries like Sudan, they risk being turned in by spies from the Eritrean Government. He also added that the quality of life in places like Egypt and Libya isn’t that great — something which is evident by the numbers of migrants trying to flee from them.

Italy’s search and rescue operations have done a commendable job; they have saved thousands of lives. The British Government believes that as a result of their praiseworthy work, more migrants will feel encouraged to leave for Europe as they rely on these operations for survival. In reality however, that’s the last occurring thought, if one at all, that a migrant escaping their country has. Realistically, if you were determined to go out into the sea, the last thing you’d want to do is imagine the possibility that your boat will be the boat that does not make it to the other side. In the case of Thomas, he travelled with the thought that since he paid good money to the smugglers he should expect to get to the other side safely.

British Government: ‘The most effective way to prevent refugees and migrants attempting this dangerous crossing is to focus our attention on countries of origin’ — what exactly does that mean? What measures has this government taken to ensure this ‘effective way’ will be successful? According to Thomas the only way for this issue to be resolved is if the President Isaias Afwerki steps down, or if the draconian military service is abolished, or once democracy or any other form of free speech has no fatal consequences. Have any of these issues been broached, or even brought to light?

In terms of fighting the ‘people smugglers’ what has our government done? There’s an irony here; in wanting to fight the smugglers to reduce the death numbers of migrants, by focusing on the ‘country of origin’ (an unclarified objective) thousands of migrants will die. The support that was taken away could have saved thousands of lives. Now, many of the unnecessary deaths caused appear to result largely from ignorance of the actual motives for migrating.

As this is a sensitive subject, the names have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.

Thomas is a representative of Eritrea, but there are many more countries such as Niger, Syria, Libya etc., where migration is the only option. Thomas also didn’t have the worst-case scenario. There are migrants who walked through the Sahara.



http://www.globalinitiative.net/download/global-initiative  /global%20Initiative%20Migration%20from%20Africa%20to%20Europe%20-%20May%202014.pdf http://publications.iom.int/bookstore/free/fataljourneys_countingtheUncounted.pdf http://www.humanrightswatch.org
And of course, Thomas.

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