Refugees /Opinion
Death at sea on migrant routes, which continues unabated as we speak, has almost doubled in number, year on year Image Credit: Gulf News

Europe’s waterways, now virtually migrants’ sole gateways to Europe, have become graveyards, where asylum seekers have drowned in alarmingly great numbers on their pitiful journeys of hope, in search of a sheltering refuge from the violence, persecution and poverty endemic in their own homelands.

So who cares? Well, we do — those of us who, though now faint under the weight of news overload about the subject, still are not driven to turn a blind eye to these folks’ plight and a deaf ear to their plaints.

Death at sea on migrant routes, which continues unabated as we speak, has almost doubled in number, year on year. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, in a report released on Friday, claimed that last year alone no less than 3,000 people died or went missing while attempting to cross the Mediterranean.

“Most of the sea crossings took place in packed, unseaworthy, inflatable boats, many of which capsized, leading to the loss of life”, a UNHCR official told journalists at a press conference held at the Palais de Nations in Geneva that day.

Going down without a trace

The Mediterranean, however, is not the sole waterway from which migrants proceed to Europe. Some cross from the West African coastal states, such as Senegal and Mauritania, to the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean, usually long, perilous trips that take up to 10 days, where boats are known to drift off course and go missing without a trace.

And some migrants have taken to sailing the English Channel from France, often in overcrowded fishing boats and flimsy dinghies hardly suitable for crossing a river, much less a vast waterway. Last year alone, as many as 28,000 crossed the Channel.

On Monday, the UK’s Border Force intercepted seven boats there, carrying 254 migrants, which clearly suggests that the prospect of asylum seekers getting sent to Rwanda — in keeping with Britain’s projected plan to outsource migrants to the landlocked country in Central Africa — has not acted as a deterrent.

We, along with our media, have become so inured to this tragedy, so case-hardened, indeed so callous, that the death on April 5 of 92 asylum seekers attempting to reach European shores from Libya was reported in many publications on their inside pages under the section “News in Brief”.

But migrants keep coming. And coming. Without letup.

Across the Atlantic, in the United States, similarly determined migrants — the wretched of the earth, as Frantz Fanon called them — from the impoverished Global South have come knocking on yet another rampart of the affluent Global North, only to encounter a “big, beautiful wall”, as that nation’s former president dubbed it, built along the US-Mexico border and made of tens of thousands of heavy steel slats, with miles of double-steel wiring.

In a news story published on the front page of the Washington Post on Saturday, filed by veteran reporter Nick Mirrof from San Diego, a mere 17 miles from the border, the lead begins: “In the trauma wards of this city’s major hospitals, patients from the border have arrived every day with gruesome injuries: skull fractures, broken vertebra and shattered limbs, their lower extremities twisted into deranged angles. The patients have fallen from new 30-foot segments of [former] President Doanld Trump’s border wall, a structure he touted as a ‘Rolls-Royce’ that ‘can’t be climbed’ “.

Miroff then adds: “Migrants attempting to evade capture have drowned in the Rio Grande, died of exposure in South Texas and Arizona, and disappeared into the Pacific during smuggling attempts at sea”.

Yes, they keep coming. And coming

They keep coming because migration is a phenomenon as old as human history, stretching back to the time in it when humans began to leave their African homeland 80,000 years ago in order to search for, well, better lives, better habitats and better opportunities — not much unlike their modern-day descendants.

This search never stopped: And here’s a case in point: Between 1820 and 1980 some 37 million European migrated to the US, and between the 1950s and early 1980s some 13 million people from developing countries migrated to Europe, initially as “guest workers”, later settling as permanent residents.

And they keep coming also because the will to migrate, like the will-to meaning, is imprinted, much in the manner of genetic information, on our sensibility as human beings.

In short, it is a function of the energies of spirit that animate our human being. It is when the challenges presented by our home ground begin to limit those energies that we become possessed, as it were, by the future tense, a tense of reality where expectations of personal and social enfranchisement take on a dizzying sense of total possibility.

I say the travails of migrants are a heroic saga, a saga of sagas that enfolds a great metaphor of renewal, an eloquent statement about the human spirit sprinting beyond its fixed station. Yes, it is those migrants in rags, appearing broken in back and spirt, “the huddled masses yearning to be free”, that I’m talking about.

Fawaz Turki is a noted thinker, academic and author based in Washington. He is the author of The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile