Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The unfolding humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean : Gambia's disproportionate share of the mass exodus and why

The European Union, United States and rest of the international community are finally taking notice of one of the biggest wave of human migration in human history that is resulting in the unimaginable loss of human life.

The Italian prime minister has called for an emergency European summit this week.  United Nation's Ban Ki-moon who was "shocked and deeply saddened" by the recent tragic events resulting in at least, over 1,500 death by drowning in the past week along, has appealed to Europeans to take in the refugees.

The statement issued by the ranking member of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland captures the complex nature of the problem when, referring to the mass exodus, he said "(F)rom Syria to Iraq, from South Sudan to Yemen, multiplying conflicts, human rights violations, statelessness and the effects of climate change, and food and water insecurity are all contributing to millions being forced from their homes in search of safety and survival."

The disaster has been looming for several years in full view of coastal European countries along the Mediterranean.  Overwhelmed by the inflow, Europe sees as a threat - real and imagined - to its own way of life, leading to the tightening of their immigration laws as a solution to a much wider problem that resembles more like the picture painted by Senator Cardin.

The response from countries of southern Europe - who are closer to Libya as the source of the illegal migration -  adopted proactive policies that have proven to be ineffectual.  It is true that Italy's success at rescuing refugees in decrepit boats in the Mediterranean had resulted in the winding down of the effort which was later seen to be encouraging more Africans to venture the route. Consequently rescue missions were curtailed resulting in the humanitarian disaster that is currently unfolding.

The assumption that led to the disastrous policy change was that if more refugees were allowed to drown, it will act as a deterrent,  Apart from the irony and the macabre nature of the reasoning, the equation left our an important variable i.e. the organized gangs of human traffickers in Libya.  By curtailing Italian Coast Guard rescue missions, it opened up the sea lanes for more and bigger rickety boats to ply the Mediterranean unhindered, resulting in high death tolls of monumental proportions.

Italy has not only been rescuing refugees but its government has also been providing bilateral aid to countries like The Gambia that is one of the principal source of the refugee problem currently facing Europe and the world.  The aid provides vehicles, presumably to patrol Gambia's borders to prevent Gambian from leaving a country that is now referred to as the North Korea of Africa.  It also include a repatriation component that allows for the deportation of Gambians that includes cash inducement for the government.  Malta recently signed a similar Agreement with the Gambia.  Spain has also signed a similar Agreement.

Needless to say that these programs have failed.  The reasons for failure are two-fold (i) the narrow definition of the problem which led to wrong solutions and (ii) a corrupt regime that pockets aid proceeds.  In the case of the Gambia, the vehicles meant for border patrol are diverted for other inappropriate uses.

It is for these reasons that we addressed an Open Letter to prime minister Joseph Muscat of Malta opposing the Agreement his Foreign Minister signed with the Gambia last year because to deport the 80 Gambians, as the government planned to do, wold have meant certain imprisonment and torture for many.

It is no coincidence that Eritrea and The Gambia, two of the smallest countries without internal civil strife, constitute about 25% of immigrate arrival in Italy in the first quarter of 2015, according to Italy's Interior Ministry figures. The two also are considered to be the most repressive, not only in Africa but anywhere in the world with,  The total number of deaths in the first four months of 2014 were 96.  The figured jumped to 1,500 and counting for the same period this year.  This figure is already 50 times greater than the same period last year.

To illustrate our claim that the regime in The Gambia benefits from this humanitarian catastrophe, the "agents" in the Gambia - who are all Gambian nationals - transact business openly, freely and are well known to their respective communities, and some are known to have connections with agents of the notorious National Intelligence Agency known by its acronym NIA.

These "agents" charge D 100,000 ($2,000) which guarantees a one-way trip to Bamako, Mali from where these young Gambians are left on their own devices to find their way to Libya via Burkina Faso and Niger; a treacherous journey referred to locally as the "Back Way".  Parents have been known to sell their landed properties to pay for the exorbitant fare with the hope that their children will make it to Europe and start sending remittances.  Of course, what these unscrupulous "agents" omit to mention in their sales pitch is the changing mood of what has become 'Fortress Europe' that is still recovering from the Great Recession of 2007.  

It is inconceivable that the regime is unaware of this form of human trafficking that has been in operation for quite some time.  It is, therefore, hypocritical of the regime to give Italy, Spain, Malta and others that the leadership is committed to stemming a tide that they are exploiting  financially from both ends of the "Back Way."