20. Oktober 2013 · Kommentare deaktiviert für Lampedusa: Reportage – eritreische Überlebende (Merminod / Baster) · Kategorien: Italien, Libyen · Tags: ,

Eritrean survivors of the Lampedusa tragedy remain in limbo

By Isabelle Merminod and Tim Baster


“I knew he was in the boat.”  Along with many other families of the victims, Mulue Medhine came to Lampedusa to search for a relative – his 20-year-old nephew.

He spoke quietly. He had just been in the Carabinieri’s office to be shown hundreds of photos of the dead.

Like many families, Medhine could not identify his relative from the terrible pictures of drowned young people. Speaking to Equal Times, he said, sadly: “Many of the coffins have no name.”

Monday, 14 October, 2013. Eritrean survivors, family members and friends mourn the victims of the sinking of a smuggler’s boat which resulted in the deaths of 370 people (Photo/Isabelle Merminod)

On 3 October, 2013, a smuggler’s boat from Libya sank just off the coast of Lampedusa, the Italian island nearest to Tunisia and Libya, after a fire started on the vessel.

They were over 500 migrants on the boat; the vast majority were Eritrean but there were also a few people  from Somalia and Ghana on board.

The death toll has been put at 370 with 156 survivors but there is still some dispute about the exact number.

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees spokesperson, Melissa Fleming, said that amongst the survivors were 40 unaccompanied boys aged between 14 and 17, and six women.

“Those who died presumably either could not swim or were trapped in the boat’s crammed lower deck.”

Currently, the survivors are being held in a reception centre guarded by the military with 1,000 other migrants who have arrived on the island.

No-one knows what will happen to the survivors at this point but under normal circumstances, they would have been moved to the mainland before being eventually freed.

The coffins of those who perished in the tragedy were put on the Italian naval vessel the ‘Libra’ on Sunday and Monday, watched by survivors.

Officials say that the bodies of young Eritreans are still being recovered from the sea, two weeks after the tragedy.

One official, despairing at the senseless loss of life, remarked:  “They were all young people.”

He angrily pointed out that navigation instruments such as a GPS, radar or compass, had been removed from the boat before leaving Libya. There also weren’t any life jackets.

Some survivors have said they paid US$1,600 for the passage from Libya to Italy which means the traffickers made at least US$850,000 for this one trip.

Fleeing Eritrea

Mousa (not his real name) claims he is 18, but looks much younger.  “I have relatives here in Europe. I have to get to them,” he tells us.

Like all the other Eritreans in Lampedusa, he has been told nothing of his fate by the Italian government or officials on the island. This is especially worrying for these young people traumatised by the loss of friends and family.

The fears of the young survivors are increased by the presence of pro-government Eritreans who have arrived on the island and are campaigning for the return of the bodies to Eritrea.

When asked why he wanted to leave Eritrea, Mousa explains: “There is no democracy or freedom of religion or freedom of politics and [there is] indefinite [compulsory] military service.”

Isaias Afewerki has been president of Eritrea since it gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 following a 30-year war.

A recent report from Amnesty International described Eritrea as “one of the most repressive, secretive and inaccessible countries in the world.”

There are no opposition parties, no independent media and no civil society organisations.

Amnesty’s 2013 annual report on Eritrea also documented widespread arbitrary detention, routine torture.  Political prisoners are kept in steel shipping containers which are freezing at night and unbearably hot during the day.

There are few reliable statistics on the number of Eritreans fleeing the country but back in June, the UN Special Rapporteur on Eritrea, Sheila Keetharuth, put the figure at up to 4,000 people every month.

Europe’s response

The Eritrean ambassador to Italy, Zemede Tekle Woldetatios, attempting to deflect criticism from human rights organisations, blamed people traffickers: “[Eritrean] youth …. are victims of the organised groups, the human traffickers. The world should fight collectively against that. ”

His views fit neatly into the discourse of European politicians who talk of increased border security, more repression and even the use of drones to stop traffickers – and by extension, refugees.

Lacking the necessary paperwork to reach protection via safe means, many sub-Saharan Africans fleeing conflict or repression must pass the Mediterranean Sea to reach Europe and need traffickers to get through increasingly sophisticated border controls.

Cecilia Malmström, the EU Commissioner for Home Affairs has promised action to save lives by creating “a wide search and rescue Frontex operation covering the Mediterranean from Cyprus to Spain.”

But the Frontex website says that it “promotes, coordinates and develops European border management” – not sea rescues.
Only six months ago, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, François Crépeau harshly criticised EU border policies.
In a report he stated that because of  EU policies “smuggling rings are reinforced, migrants are made more vulnerable, corruption is made more potent, exploitation more rife, human rights violations are more prevalent and graver, and ultimately lives may be more at risk than before.”

Crépeau condemned the EU for failing to protect the human rights of migrants.

Back in Lampedusa, on Monday, when the children’s coffins were brought on to the dockside, the soldiers and police snapped to attention in an honour guard as the coffins were gently carried to the ‘Libra’ naval vessel.

In contrast, when these children were alive they were not honoured. They embarked from Libya crammed into a decrepit 17-metre fishing boat trying to avoid Europe’s brutal border controls.

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