In the Mediterranean. Face Down.

Drowning for Freedom

Drowning for Freedom

On June 18th 2015, the UNHCR issued a truly horrifying report, World at War: Forced Displacement in 2014 that details the human cost of global conflicts large and small. More people than ever are fleeing war according to UNHCR, which puts the grand total of refugees at a record-shattering 59.5 million souls. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, is at pains to banish the pleasant delusion that humanitarian organizations and governments are capable of cleaning up the mess. They aren’t. It’s way too big.

On June 19th, Human Rights Watch chimed in with first person accounts of refugees who have survived crossing the Mediterranean, The Mediterranean Migration Crisis. The world community is still trying to come to grips with the appalling death toll of over 800 people, of whom 100 are thought to have been unaccompanied children with the sinking of a boat filled with refugees near Lampedusa in April (see the story in the Guardian).

Vice News has produced a series of films on the ongoing waves of refugees being put out to sea in wildly unseaworthy boats. The cost in human terms is horrendous. In Drowning for Freedom, an officer of the Libyan Navy describes trying and failing to save drowning people within an arm’s length, “I watched him die,” he says of one man he couldn’t save. And of course, they’re not just men. There are women, and children, and old people. The wild chaos of rescuing scores of panicking people from a foundering boat is apparent from the footage shot by the Libyan Navy. These are truly life-endangering as well as life-saving operations.

Libya, which has some pretty serious problems of its own, is struggling to maintain this level of presence on the Mediterranean. Not surprising then, the Libyan Navy is cutting back on its patrols, which means that more will die.

Those that are saved, are arrested on the spot and sent to detention centers, where they sit indefinitely. The second film in the series, Trapped and Forgotten gives us a rare glimpse into one of these modern-day oubliettes. “Look at me,” says Housma, a migrant from Ghana, his voice breaking. “One month and two weeks without a bath, look at how I smell. I am a human being. All I want is to go back to my country.” Some lucky detainees who manage to get in touch with family are ransomed out of the detention center. The others remain, prisoners held without charge and for an indefinite term.

Escaping Hell: Libya’s Migrant Jails, Part Three in the series, follows the fortunes of some of the detainees who do manage to pay their way out of Libyan jails and onto a boat in the company of throngs of equally desperate people. A young Syrian man explains what happened when he boarded a boat leaving the Libyan coast at 1am one night. The wildly overloaded boat started taking on water immediately. By 7am the engine was flooded. At 5:30pm, a cargo ship approached the desperate vessel and lowered ladders for the people to climb up, but the approach of the ship caused the migrant vessel to swamp and capsize. “The Africans had no life jackets,” said the Syrian. “They started holding on to those that did. They drowned a lot of people. There were 150 of us to start with. No more than 65 survived.” A hellish scene.

The impact of this appalling traffic in human lives touches all of Europe. Two bodies in wetsuits washed up on a Norwegian island and at Trexel in the Netherlands last winter. The Norwegian Dagbladet, has a very moving story on the investigation into this mystery, The Wetsuitman.

Vice News also has a terrific film, the final part of their series, Europe or Die, called Italy’s Mediterranean Mass Grave, which goes into the politics of the rescue/containment effort. The previous search and rescue operation, called Mare Nostrum, is being shut down, because Italy can no longer afford to keep it up. In its place, the European Union has mounted a surveillance effort, named Triton, and run by Frontex, the agency within the European Union that manages borders. Mare Nostrum – our ocean – was tasked with saving lives. The Triton mission is focused on border patrol, identifying boats moving towards European waters; search and rescue would remain the province of overwhelmed national coast guards and whatever passing cargo ships might happen to notice a boat in trouble. Europe, increasingly beleaguered, focuses on border controls, leaving the human beings implementing the program to confront what that actually means in terms of human lives. Gabriella, working for the non-profit Save the Children, says “24,000 migrants arrived in Italy last year, half of those, 12,000 were unaccompanied minors,” in other words, children and young teenagers. Many had lost parents on the trip, others had left their countries on their own.

Izabella Cooper, spokesperson for Frontex, points out that “People smugglers are profit-oriented. They’re basically running a zero-risk high-profit operation. Wearing life jackets – for them – reduces space available on the boat. So we don’t see the migrants wearing life jackets at all.” Focusing on the culpability of the smugglers – and they’re certainly plenty culpable – elides the responsibility of the destination countries in propping up this savage black market transporting the desperate. For the high prices paid to smugglers for transport on unseaworthy boats only make sense if migrants are facing detainment and deportation if they are caught in the destination or transit country. In an interview with the Guardian, UN special rapporteur for migrant human rights François Crépeau lays out the basic illogic of the European approach to the migrant crisis.

Einstein has defined madness as repeating the same thing and expecting a different result. If we continue what we’ve done – especially in Europe – it’s not going to get better. This is only the start of the summer season, so if we’ve had over a thousand deaths in the past week, we’re probably going to see that over the coming weeks as well.

Crépeau recommends cutting the legs out from under the smugglers by offering resettlement for refugees and legal avenues for economic migrants. Resettlement is nothing new. We’ve done it before, he says, 30 years ago in Indochina. Save lives, shut down the smuggling market and have a mobile work force that goes where the jobs are. Makes a lot of sense.

On a cheerier note, Len Morris had An Extraordinary Day in Washington, D.C. last week at a capstone event in honor of World Day Against Child Labor. In his speech, Kailash Satyarthi invoked the spirit of Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln. A very good day indeed.


Media Voices Associate Editorial Director Petra Lent McCarron is an experienced television and film producer and editor. She co-produced Stolen Childhoods, Rescuing Emmanuel and The Same Heart for Galen Films.