Monday, 2 October, 2023

Deaths in the Mediterranean

A K Ziauddin Ahmed

On June 14, 2023, a fishing boat carrying refugees and migrants sank in the Mediterranean. It was one of many such incidents in recent times. It is rather becoming a regular occurrence. How many people died this time? Of course, no one knows. No one knows how many men, women, and children were loaded on that boat. Yes, ‘loaded’ like cattle as could be seen from an aerial photograph of the boat released by Greek authorities before it capsized and sank. Seventy-eight dead bodies were found and 104 people were rescued. However, as reported by CNN, the Chairman of Pakistan’s Senate, Muhammad Sadiq Sanjrani, said that more than 300 Pakistanis have been killed in the incident. Then, there were also Afghans, Egyptians, Palestinians, and Syrians on the vessel. The International Organization for Migration (IOM), a UN Agency, estimates that there were about 750 people on the packed boat which means around 650 people have perished in the sea. We will never know the exact numbers of how many people were there and how many died. Only the families of the dead will find out one day that their beloved ones will never return.

Who owned that boat and who were the organizers of that trip from Tripoli to the coasts of Italy are officially unknown. The huge network of international human traffickers and their criminal associates in travel agents, hotels, homestays, transport owners, border security, immigration, etc., are operating undauntedly in full view of the entire world. They are well-known in their respective territories. Often, they are powerful individuals or are backed by people in power.

Shahid Mehmood, a retired Pakistani civil servant knows the travel agent who charged 2.2 million Pakistani rupees for his 25-year-old son Sultan’s safe passage to Europe with assurance of a better life and earning. Mehmood’s story, published by Reuters on June 17, 2023, recounts Sultan’s ‘two to three days’ journey to Europe promised by the travel agent. Sultan was flown to Dubai, even though he had no travel documents, ID, or passport. He stayed in Dubai for 2 days. Then he was transported to Egypt, where he stayed for another 6 days. From there he was sent to Libya in a plane that was so crammed it had people sitting on the floor. He was kept in Tripoli for four months in filthy conditions before being loaded onto the aforementioned fishing boat for a 5–6 day journey to Italy. Sultan is one of the hundreds of migrants on board who are missing after the boat sank.

IOM launched a Missing Migrants Project (MMP) in 2014. It aims to document cases in which migrants, including refugees and asylum-seekers, have lost their lives while crossing state borders or during the process of migrating to an international destination.

According to the MMP database, a total of 54,125 deaths and disappearances happened along migration routes from January 2014 to December 2022. Out of these, 25,324 deaths and missing cases occurred in the Mediterranean Sea. Missing or disappearances essentially refer to deaths where dead bodies could not be found or recovered. Of course, these figures are official and must be lower than the actual number of deaths and missing individuals, since the true number of people taking part in each journey is never known.

People have been migrating since the earliest days of our existence. An article by Byerin Blakemore published on March 1, 2019, in National Geographic, asserts that humans originated in Africa and then moved out to different parts of the world around 60,000 years ago. Today we leave our home country in search of a better life, to escape various types of persecution or war, and to flee from the effects of climate change that made our ancestral homeland uninhabitable. While technology has made transportation easier and faster, modern civilization has also imposed harsh restrictions on cross-border movements of people.

Migrants from African countries, Middle Eastern countries like Syria and Iraq, and some Asian countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan take the Mediterranean route to reach Europe – the nearest dreamland. Conditions in their home countries which can be attributed to the lack of good governance and wrong policies and decisions made by the people in power are obviously responsible for the desperate attempts of these people to cross the Mediterranean. But the human traffickers bear the direct responsibility for the deaths in the Mediterranean. The traffickers take advantage of the migrants’ vulnerability and rip them off and yet they don’t even provide them with a sea-worthy vessel so that they can cross the Mediterranean safely. How could people be such monsters completely devoid of morals and ethics?

Many of these migrants would have been dissuaded if they knew the real situation that they are going to face out there. Particularly, those who are looking for a better life and not trying to run away from war or persecution in the sheer struggle for survival would have thought twice before falling into the trap of the traffickers.When Sultan realized he has been deceived, it was too late. He was stranded in a foreign land without any legal documents. He was a helpless hostage in the hands of the traffickers. Shaheed Mehmood asked the travel agent to bring back his son when he heard about the squalid conditions in which he was living in Libya, but to no avail.

The migrants are mostly destitute who lost everything, and are struggling to survive and start a new life. They don’t have the strength and resources to stand up against the human traffickers. Governments, NGOs, and conscious communities need to do that. According to Statista, the total number of convictions related to human trafficking worldwide was 5,260 in 2021. While this number might offer a glimmer of hope, we need more light. MMP reports that the total number of deaths of migrants worldwide rather increased from 6,083 in 2021 to 6,876 in 2022.


The writer is a former Corporate

Professional and Academic