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City of Banjul
Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Lempedusa – Do or die affair

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As many as 400 migrants had been reportedly lost at sea since Saturday with many feared dead. Unfailingly, young Gambians are in the frontlines. 

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“[I knew] I was taking a big risk, but either I enter Europe or I die,” 25-year-old Gambian, Al-Haji, told the CNN in an Italian camp after embarking on the illegal journey from Libya via the Mediterranean seas.

Another Gambian, Jibril, 28, said search for a better life for him and his family in Europe was what pushed him out of his native Gambia, where he had lost hope of fulfilling his dreams of making riches. 

He explains: “After 20, 25 years, you have to make a future for yourself. But in The Gambia, I couldn’t. My family, they have nothing. They are poor people.”

Jibril and Al-Haji are among a thinned group of 117 migrants, who arrived safe in Augusta in Italy on Tuesday. The group, which included 31 women, was composed mostly of Nigerians and Gambians. 

More than 10,000 such migrants have arrived on Italian shores since the weekend, according to the Italian Coast Guard.  

The ‘backway’ journey using unseaworthy boats, which was generally seen as a sub-Sahara African affair now sees the involvement en mass of people from war-torn countries, such as Syria and Somalia, and others running away from dictatorships, such as Eritrea.

Timothy, in his mid-20s from Nigeria, left his home nine months ago. He said he paid human traffickers in Tripoli 1,000 Libyan dinars, more than $700, for the voyage, he said. Another Nigerian, Mercy, from Kano in the northern part of that country, said she had left Kano because her family feared that she would be taken by Boko Haram.

Another man, from Liberia, also said that he had lived and worked in Libya for 15 years, but was terrified at the prospect of ISIS gaining even more territory.

 

No man is an island

In his reportage about the rescued migrants, CNN’s International Correspondent, Ben Wedeman gives a graphic account of the terrific scene as he found it in Italy. 

“They were huddled in the back of a tugboat,” he said of the migrants. “Some were without shoes. Their coats and jackets, still wet, were piled up in a huge container behind them.

“As they filed off the boat, representatives of the Italian Red Cross did a quick visual inspection, checking for fever, scabies, any sign of illness. One woman, they discovered, was two months pregnant.”

Ben explains further: “We had flown to Sicily from Rome following news that as many as 400 migrants had been lost at sea. The tragedy adds to the mounting death toll among those fleeing war and poverty in Africa and the Middle East. 

“The wars, unrest, upheaval, misery and injustice I’ve covered over the last 20 years, in Syria, in Libya, in West Africa and elsewhere, seem to be coming together to remind those who have enjoyed Europe’s relative peace and prosperity that no man is an island.

“The small group of migrants in Augusta has been taken in by the Italian authorities. They’ve been fed, clothed, received medical treatment, and will be taken to migrant camp in northern Italy.”

 

‘This is my destiny’

So far this year, as many as 900 have lost their lives. Last year at least 3,200 died making the journey. Since 2000, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), almost 22,000 people have died fleeing across the Mediterranean.

Yet, many more are waiting in Libyan jails and cities ready and willing, hoping that once they gain freedom or have gathered enough money to pay smugglers, they will hit the high seas to get somewhere in Europe, somehow. 

Muhammed Lamin Bah, a young Gambian locked up in Libyan jails, yesterday told the BBC that he had made four failed attempts to get to Europe. 

“I do work, gather some money and try my luck again. The Libyans have imprisoned us and treated us bad. This is the most dangerous journey, and we know it. But we will keep trying and one day, we will enter Europe. For me, I see this as my destiny. I cannot leave it. I have to do it. Europe is better.”

Failure of governments

Last year, the plight of African migrants was taken up as a human rights issue by the African Human Rights Commission, dominating the commission’s November 2014 sessions here in Banjul. 

Pulling no punches, the outgoing commissioner at the time, Nigerian-born Ms Catherine Dupe Atoki had blamed the mass exits and resultant deaths of migrants on the failure of African governments to provide to their citizens the basic necessities of life, not the greed or ignorance of young African migrants. 

She told the forum attended by African government ministers: “Could these youth embark on such a perilous journey if they had food to eat, clean water to drink, adequate shelter, or other necessities of life that governments should provide? Or had jobs and not harassed and intimidated for their beliefs, and to express their opinions freely?  

“In short, if they could realise their dreams in a conducive environment free of want and fear, the answer would certainly be in the negative. The plight of these young people should be a scar on the conscience of any government for pushing its youth to such perilous journey in search for basic living standards which the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights enjoins State parties to provide.” 

And, as African human rights activists across the continent set to convene in Banjul later this month for yet another continent-wide human rights forum, will the plight of African illegal migrants be back on the agenda of African Union’s human rights organ?  

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