The first half of April has been one of the deadliest period for migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea. On April, Reuters reported that as many as 400 migrants had drowned when their ship capsized off the coast of Libya. News of a fresh tragedy — the reported drowning of 900 people near Libya — followed on April 19.
Deaths in the Mediterranean are on a dramatic uptick, according to Patrick Kingsley of The Guardian:
Med deaths, 2014 Jan — 12 Feb — 24 Mar — 10 Apr — 50 TOTAL 96 Med deaths, 2015 Jan — 77 Feb — 346 Mar — 63 Apr (so far) c.1100 TOTAL c.1600
— Patrick Kingsley (@PatrickKingsley) April 20, 2015
Reasons for the increase can be found on every side of the Mediterranean. Syria, where 11.5 million people have been driven from their homes over four years of conflict, is experiencing one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes since World War II.
And statistics from the Italian ministry of the Interior, tweeted out by Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth, suggest that there are other, less obvious, and maybe less solvable factors driving the crisis, like the internal political situation in two small and extremely oppressive countries thousands of miles from the northern Mediterranean coast.
According to Italian government data, many of the migrants who successfully landed in Italy in 2014 and who declared a nationality upon landing came from countries with major internal security issues, with Syria, Mali, Somalia, and Nigeria accounting for 40% of the total. Italy is the closest country to Mediterranean Africa, and many migrant ships are bound for Lampedusa, an island around 200 miles from the north African coast.
But two countries near the top of the Italian government’s list have almost no significant internal society issues, and no civil conflicts approaching the scale of the Syrian war or the Boko Haram insurgency.
They’re sparsely populated nations that haven’t been ravaged by disease, and are ruled by governments that could be counted among their region’s most stable.
Eritrea has a population of around 6.3 million and accounted for 20% of the total. At 1.6 million, Gambia has .01% of Nigeria’s population, and no jihadist insurgency — but it accounted for 5.1% of migrants that reached Italy by sea, just shy of Nigeria’s 5.3%.
The two countries have combined for just shy of a quarter of migrant arrivals in Italy in the first quarter of 2015, according to the LA Times. Despotic governments ruling over small and somewhat peripheral countries are fuelling a deadly and globally significant crisis.
In Eritrea’s case, the totals are another grim reflection of the political and human rights situation in the world’s most closed-off country.
Under president Isaias Afewerki, Eritrea became one of the first countries in Africa to meet the UN’s Millennium Development Goals for health, a mark it reached with almost no outside aid. The Eritrean government has also weathered the rash of jihadism and state collapse that’s gripped much of its neighbourhood.
But Afewerki’s regime accomplished this through some of the world’s strictest controls on freedom of expression, and an indefinite forced military conscription regime supposedly justified by Eritrea’s ongoing state of war with Ethiopia, its rival to the south.
Whatever the legal merits of Eritrea’s position in its border dispute with Ethiopia, Afewerki has used the frozen conflict to turn his country into an internationally isolated and hyper-militarised bunker state.
In the process, he’s preserved his rule indefinitely — a 15-year pivot to authoritarianism from which a quarter-million Eritreans have now fled. And the situation may be getting more desperate, even if there are few outside observers and no independent media to report on how or why: According to UN statistics, the number of Eritreans seeking asylum in Europe in the first 10 months of 2014 shot up from to 37,000 compared to 13,000 during the same period the year before.
Gambia is another fairly stable state chafing under one of the world’s most oppressive governments. President Yayha Jammeh has purged most of his internal critics and essentially outlawed rival political parties — during a period when nearby Senegal and Nigeria have each undergone peaceful democratic transitions of power.
Jammeh’s near-term grip on his country looks secure after a failed coup attempt in December of 2014, and the fact that such a proportionally large number of Gambians have risked their lives to make it to Europe, shows that comparisons to North Korea might not be all that far off. Notably, Gambians represented 14% of migrant arrivals in Italy in the first 3 months of 2015.
It’s tempting to think that the migrant crisis is necessarily tied to instability in the greater Middle East — just as it’s comforting to think that there’s a clear correlation between internal stability and the happiness and prosperity of a country’s citizens.
Eritrea and Gambia’s appearance at the top of the Italian government’s data on migrant origins inverts these assumptions. They are stable and not especially populous countries that have still produced a critical mass of people willing to risk their lives to leave — Gambia is less than half the size of New Jersey and over 2,600 miles from the Libyan port city of Benghazi.
There’s no political arrangement or treaty that can stem the outflow of migrants from these countries, which can only by halted through a significant shift in internal political and social dynamics that might not even be possible under the countries’ existing authoritarian regimes.
Gambia and Eritrea’s prominence in the Mediterranean migrant crisis is jarring evidence of the actual human rights situation in two countries that are typically closed off to foreign journalists and monitors (the Eritrean government purged most independent media and civil society groups in a 2001 crackdown, and the US does not currently have an ambassador in Asmara).
They demonstrate how far people are willing to go to escape oppressive governments, and push against the widely held delusion that entire populations can be conditioned to the whims and megalomania of authoritarian governments. They show that stability can be a misleading measurement of a country’s situation, and that a brutally enforced peace can be a disaster on par with violent conflict.
People from both countries have assumed almost unimaginable levels of risk to live in free societies — meaning that the moral and practical responsibility for handling the Mediterranean migrant crisis will shift to Europe until the situation in Eritrea and Gambia changes.
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