Vidya Ram

The rising death toll of ‘illegal’ migrants

VIDYA RAM | Updated on March 12, 2018 Published on August 21, 2014

Is there anyone inside? Migrants set off for Europe in the most precarious ways possible   -  Maksimilian/shutterstock.com

Europe should reform its stringent immigration policies that force desperate millions to seek tragic measures to migrate

The discovery at the weekend of 34 Sikh refugees (including 15 children) from Afghanistan and the dead body of 40-year-old Meet Singh Kapoor inside an airless container at Tilbury docks on the Thames estuary east of London has highlighted the desperate and life-risking measures people often take to create what they believe will be a better life in Europe.

While facts are still being established, it is known that the refugees, aged between 1 and 72, spent over 18 hours in the container that arrived from the Belgian port of Zeebrugge. Dehydrated and running short of oxygen, they came to the attention of dockworkers who heard their screams. It is far from being a lone incident: several days later, 15 young migrants from Kashmir and Eritrea were freed from inside a lorry in southwestern England.

Paths of misery

Other routes into Europe have proved even more deadly. The small Italian island of Lampedusa has become a global symbol for the tragic consequences of the desperate lengths many will go to for survival. Over 360 migrants from Somalia and Eritrea died when their boat sank off the island in last October as they attempted to enter Europe.

The Migrant Files, launched by a group of European journalists last year, puts the number of people who have died attempting to reach Europe at 25,000 since 2000. The website gives a startling picture of the frequency of human tragedies: 10 migrants were found dead on an inflatable boat off Lampedusa in mid June, with tens more missing; 45 people were found dead of suffocation on a boat off the coast of Sicily; 20 died after a makeshift boat sank off the Libyan coast. Meron Estefanos, a human rights activist and journalist in Sweden, says the numbers are far higher, with many tragedies outside international waters going undocumented.

“We had a boat carrying 435 Eritreans on June 28 that has gone missing…we just don’t know what happened,” she told Business Line. Estefanos is one of the many activists who provide a lifeline to desperate Eritrean refugees on their way to Europe. Such refugees call her number in desperate hope that she can help them or a loved one — whether kidnapped in Libya or on the perilous boat journey to Europe. She receives dozens of such calls each day.

Rings of exploitation

European authorities have regularly sought to point the finger at human trafficking rings. Such rings have over the years cruelly exploited the desperation of vulnerable people across the world for profits, exhorting vast sums while leading them through increasingly dangerous routes to foil immigration authorities.

Yet, as human rights campaigners note, Europe must share some of the responsibility too, and it is only by reform of the continent’s tough policies that such tragedies can be stopped in the future. First, it is important to stress that there are currently no means for those seeking to flee their country to come into Europe by open, formal routes: EU embassies simply don’t accept applications for asylum. “They don’t have any other way of claiming asylum in Europe other than clandestinely coming to Europe,” points out Ben Ward, deputy director for Europe and Central Asia at Human Rights Watch.

Exacerbating the situation is the Dublin Regulation signed by many members of the EU — including France, Britain, Germany and Italy — which imposes heavy constraints on the ability of asylum seekers to move around the region. International laws making it illegal to prevent refugees from arriving aren’t always adhered to.

Earlier this year Spain courted criticism after police fired rubber bullets at migrants trying to swim to Spanish territory. Italian authorities have come under fire on occasion for standing by and doing nothing while boats of migrants took on water.

The migrants’ lack of any choice over their final destination within Europe means that the danger does not stop even when they enter Europe. Many use desperate measures to travel to their country of choice — often one where they have family and networks already in place — and this once again this places them in the hands of traffickers. Estefanos note how counterproductive this is to EU attempts to clamp down on human trafficking.

“There should be a green card system similar to the US where once you have asylum you are free to move and work…otherwise you are encouraging countries on the border to turn a blind eye.”

However, given the current hostile climate across Europe regarding immigration (where the social and economic benefits brought by incomers are largely ignored), there is little chance of reform. “The politics of migration in Europe are really poisonous,” says Ward. “No politician wants to be seen to be taking any steps that would facilitate migration of any description into their country, even refugees,” he adds.

For the large part, European politicians have played the nationalist card when it comes to immigration; to date there has been little effort to work collaboratively or find collective solutions involving a sharing out of responsibility.

This failure has had disastrous consequences for some of the world’s most vulnerable.

Published on August 21, 2014
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