Notes From the Margins…

Death in the Mediterranean

  • May 10, 2011
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Ever since the first appearance of ‘boatpeople’  en route from Morocco to Spain in the early 1990s, the Mediterranean has been a graveyard for migrants, but the death toll has now reached truly staggering proportions as a result of the Libyan war.

Last month 800 people are estimated to have drowned trying to reach Lampedusa and Malta from Libya.   Yesterday a rusty hulk carrying 600 passengers sank while leaving Tripoli and it is not known how many survived.

It cannot be known whether Gaddafi is deliberately encouraging this exodus,  as Milosovic once did in Kosovo,  or whether his forces are simply unable to prevent people fleeing the conflict.

It is certainly not inconceivable that Gaddafi is deliberately using migrants as ‘weapons’ in an attempt to bring political pressure to bear on Europe,  just as he once used them in order to  extract money and investment from the EU.  Only last year, the Libyan dictator was warning that ‘Christian’ Europe would ‘turn black’ unless Libya received more money from the EU to prevent migrants from leaving Libya.

Europe does not need much persuading to take such warnings seriously, and its governments appear more concerned with the prospect of an imminent African ‘invasion’ than  with trying to offer a coherent and collective humanitarian response to the almost daily arrivals of migrants in Italy and Malta.

Yesterday the Guardian reported that a boat carrying 72 African migrants was effectively abandoned in the Mediterranean in March and left to drift for 16 days after its fuel ran out. Only 11 people survived, who told the paper that  the Italian coastguard had been alerted to their presence through the ship’s satellite phone and that a military helicopter had flown over the boat and dropped food and biscuits.

It is still not clear which country sent the helicopter, but there was no attempt to rescue the boat.  Two of the survivors also claimed that they drifted into the vicinity of  a NATO aircraft carrier , which sent two planes over their heads to see who they were.   NATO has denied these accusations, as is only to be expected, but  the survivors’ testimonies have the ring of truth.

This horrific episode is not the first time that migrants have been abandoned to their fate in the Mediterranean, and the current death toll is further evidence that in today’s world, migrants have become a surplus and expendable population  to whom anything can be done with impunity.

And the best we can hope for is that these tragedies can galvanise a search for a different world order, in which human rights not only derive from membership of powerful states, but are also available to the stateless.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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