Late on Friday the 13th of January this year the cruise liner Costa Concordia hit rocks near the island of Giglio, off the west coast of Italy. At the time of writing the confirmed death toll had risen to 17, with a further 21 still missing. This was an undoubted tragedy for all directly involved and their loved ones. It has reverberated around the World; the tiny island of Giglio has been overrun by correspondents and camera crew from CNN, ABC, BBC, Al Jazeera and just about every other major broadcaster and news media company; our television screens, radios and internet news has been flooded with images of the stricken ship and the survivors. It is an event that very few in the western world will be unaware of. Yet on the other side of the Mediterranean, off North Africa, a greater tragedy has been steadily unfolding, one that receives very little publicity.
In 2011, according to the UN Refugee Agency, at least 1500 people died or disappeared trying to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to a new life in Europe. This included 25 who died of asphyxiation due to being crammed in to a tiny, unventilated engine room. The boat, a mere 15 metres long, was carrying 271 refugees. This happened in August last year; anyone remember it making news headlines? Fifteen are believed to have drowned already in the first month of 2012, attempting to cross from Libya. The Mediterranean can be a forbidding place to be in a small vessel in the middle of winter. It takes no small measure of courage and probably an even larger measure of desperation to set off in an open wooden boat of dubious seaworthiness to cross hundred miles of sea to a destination you know little about. The wind will often rise suddenly off the coast of Libya; a mirror smooth sea will transform into a confusion of whitecaps in a couple of hours. The vessel that appeared large and robust in harbour now appears small and flimsy in such conditions. The fear that mounting seas in an open boat generates is a visceral thing, even when one is used to spending time at sea. In darkness, in winter, in what for most would be their first time at sea, the feeling of panic would be hard to control.
These small fishing boats carry no lifejackets, no flares, no radios, no lights. They are not guided by GPS; the ones I have been on do not even carry a compass. when we do hear of refugees drowning whilst heading for Southern Europe it is generally no more than a brief, factual snippet in the news. No camera crews are despatched, no interviews with survivors that are picked up. The mainstream media collectively determines it is probably of little interest to most of us, so we learn little about it from them, and thus it remains of little interest to us. A drip, drip of people dying trying to reach here, of which we are largely oblivious.
About four years ago I was working in Libya when one such, migrant-carrying, fishing boat capsized. It was a small boat, desperately overladen with people, many of whom probably could not swim. In any event it is unlikley the ability to swim would have saved them. The boat was still filled with fishing gear, monofilament line and attached hooks, most likely stashed loose in the middle of the boat. As the boat overturned in rough seas during the night, people, lines and hooks were tossed in to the black water. One can only guess at the horror as terrified men, women and children thrashed wildy in the darkness, only to become ensnared by fishing line and to have unseen fish hooks bite in to their flesh. Jerking like dancing marionettes tethered by unseen nylon strings. But not dancing. Drowning.
The next morning arrived warm, bright and perfectly calm. We were motoring out off sabratah port early when we spotted the first bodies. The bloated corpses bound in fishing line continued to wash ashore and be picked up by the authorities for several days. I don’t know the final count but certainly more than thirty. There were no known survivors. The tragedy made not a ripple in the western media. Local people were desperately sad, but sanguine. This was not the first such event they had known, it certainly would not be the last. Those dying are not Libyans, they come primarily from sub-saharan Africa: Senegal, the Gambia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Mali, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the horn of Africa, Ethiopia and Somalia. Thus this was not the start of their bid for a new life but the final stage of a journey that probably began many months, possibly several years before.
The problem is far from unique to Libya; probably most deaths of migrants from Africa occur making the crossing from West Africa to the Canary Islands. Nor is it just an African problem, the poor are moving worldwide. Thousands are believed to have perished in the Arizona desert, crossing from Mexico. Figures are sketchy, but the US Border Patrol estimates just under 2000 deaths between 1998 and 2004. In the first six months of 2010 the office of Pima County Medical Examiner Dr. Bruce Parks (Arizona) received the bodes of 134 illegal migrants found in the desert.
We have a huge problem in this country regarding our perception of migration, illegal or otherwise. In the month (January just passed) when eighteen mostly Somali bodies, including women and children, washed up on the Libyan coastline (Libyian Coatsguard data, cited by UNHCR), the Daily Mail headline (12th Jan, 2012) was Average migrant worker earns more a year in the UK than British born , subtitled Childless couples from beyond Europe enjoy better standard of living than British. No mention was made in the article about hardship, poverty or deaths.
Update: At the start of this article I stated that fifteen irregular (as they are termed) immigrants had already drowned this year leaving Libya. More details. On Wednesday 25th January fifteen bodies, twelve women, two men and a baby girl, washed up on the shores of Libya, near Misrata. They boat they were on is believed to have been carrying between 50-55 immigrants. There are no reports of any survivors. All were beleived to be Somali refugees. (UNHCR, Migrants at Sea/AFP).