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Middle East Amp North Africa
Med becomes a no-man’s land for migrants
From the Financial Times of Fri, 31 Oct 2014 19:02:26 GMT
A young migrant waits to disembark from an Italian coast guard boat©AFP

A young migrant waits to disembark from an Italian coast guard boat

Mohanad Luthon was in good spirits when he called his uncle on the evening of September 7, a day into the crossing from North Africa to Europe. “We are at sea and everything’s going fine,” he told Onur Cinar, who, like his nephew, comes from Gaza, but has spent the past two decades in Baltimore.

“In two to three days we will be in Italy,” the 30-year-old mechanic predicted. From there he was hoping to make it to Sweden on the last leg of a 5,000km journey from war and penury to a dream of prosperity and peace. The connection dropped. It was the last time Mr Cinar would hear his nephew’s voice.

Some 48 hours later, another vessel approached and rammed the migrants’ boat. Mr Luthon and hundreds of fellow passengers now count among the thousands of casualties this year in the watery no-man’s land that is the Mediterranean, as convulsions in the Middle East have tripled the number of migrants arriving at Europe’s southern shores.

And with Italian authorities declaring on Friday that they will end extensive search-and-rescue operations, paving the way for far more limited EU-funded maritime border patrols that are due to begin on Saturday, the journey looks set to become still more perilous.

Mr Luthon had reason to be cautiously optimistic when he called his uncle. The Mediterranean is claiming more migrants’ lives than ever before. At least 3,000 died in the first nine months of this year, double the annual average. But the numbers of those arriving safely is also rising rapidly: some 175,000 this year, more than during the previous four years combined, according to Frontex, the EU’s border agency.

As Mr Luthon and some 450 others – mostly Palestinian, some Syrian – set off from Damietta on the Egyptian coast in September, their smugglers moved them from one boat to another until they were at sea in a small and overloaded trawler. But at least it was more seaworthy than the rickety Libyan crafts that scarcely leave the shore before sinking. And even if their boat did founder, the Italian navy’s rescue mission was then still in full swing.

Mr Luthon’s voyage was in its fourth day when another vessel drew alongside, manned by an Egyptian crew, according to survivors’ accounts, which differ in some details of the harrowing journey. They demanded that the migrants switch to a smaller boat for the final leg. It is a common tactic: smugglers unload their passengers, send them on their way, then call in a mayday.

This time, though, the migrants’ captain balked. Boarding the smaller boat would be suicide. Survivors’ accounts of the altercation that ensued between the smugglers and the captain differ but they concur on what happened next: their boat was rammed and capsized. By one account, the attackers circled and laughed as the terrified migrants tumbled into the sea.

Many died at once. Others lasted for days before succumbing. By the time passing commercial ships that had been alerted to the shipwreck spotted them in the water, only 11 were still alive. Mr Luthon, his wife and his two cousins were not among them.

Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN’s human rights chief, has called the attack “mass murder” and demanded that it “must not go unpunished”. Officials in Europe say the Italian police, which did not respond to a request for comment, is leading an investigation.

It may not have been able to save Mr Luthon and his fellow passengers, but Mare Nostrum, the Italian naval operation launched after hundreds of migrants drowned when their boat sank off Italy’s southern tip last year, has pulled 150,000 migrants from the water. It will not do so next year.

Italy’s territorial waters lie on a political and economic faultline. On one side is the Middle East, where warfare in Syria and Gaza has swelled the numbers of those seeking out the services of increasingly sophisticated people-smuggling networks. On the other lies Europe, where anti-immigrant parties are attracting recession-weary voters with calls to galvanise borders.

The left-right coalition government of Matteo Renzi, Italy’s prime minister, had been sending mixed messages on the future of Mare Nostrum for weeks, but on Friday senior cabinet members confirmed that it would end. Italy will immediately scale back the operations from five large ships to one large ship and three patrol vessels, Roberta Pinotti, the defence minister, said, before scrapping it altogether within two months.

[Mare Nostrum] was born as an emergency operation with a limited timeframe ... Italy did its duty

- Angelino Alfano, Italy’s interior minister

“It was born as an emergency operation with a limited timeframe – and that’s what it was,” Angelino Alfano, Italy’s interior minister. “Italy did its duty,” he added.

Mr Renzi’s government had sought to turn Mare Nostrum into a European operation earlier this year so Italy would not have to bear the cost alone, but was rebuffed by many other European countries who felt that it was encouraging immigration to Italy. Eventually, the best Italy could secure was Triton, a far narrower mission with funded by Brussels. But Mr Alfano sought to portray that as a victory. “After many years of chatter, Europe is finally jumping in the water,” he said.

The budget for Triton, as the new EU operation is known, is only a third of Mare Nostrum’s €9m monthly cost. While it will answer distress calls, it is a patrol rather than a rescue mission and covers a far smaller area than the Italian programme, which ventured close to North African waters.

Ahead of the Italian decision, this week the UK government described Mare Nostrum as “a pull factor for illegal migration” and said that EU ministers had agreed that Mare Nostrum “should be brought to a well publicised end”. Refugee groups responded with outrage.

“Everyone is claiming that this should be continued but the criminal networks are counting on this to save money by overcrowding the boats,” Antonio Saccone, head of operational analysis at Frontex, which will run the new Triton programme, told the FT on Thursday. “But this is a dilemma: how can you not save lives?”

The smuggling networks have flourished in the lawless aftermath of the Arab Spring, particularly in Libya. Charging between $1,000 and $4,000 for a place on a boat bound for Europe, by some estimates they can turn a profit of hundreds of thousands of dollars for each human cargo.

All of them dream to travel to Europe. All of them know the danger

- Abu Hamada, people smuggler

Shadi Farouk al-Jebri, 33, was aboard the same vessel as Mohanad Luthon. A former policeman from Gaza, he spent more than 48 hours treading water. It was, he recalls, “continuous torture”. But eventually a commercial ship picked him up and he was taken to Italy. “Everybody who knew there were people dying because of this and did nothing about it is a criminal,” Mr al-Jebri says of the attackers who sank the migrants’ boat.

Mr al-Jebri and other survivors say their passage to Egypt and then across the Mediterranean was arranged by a Palestinian-Syrian smuggler called Fouad al-Gamal, known as Abu Hamada.

Contacted in the Egyptian port city of Alexandria, Abu Hamada spoke to the FT through his English-speaking daughter. He acknowledged that he is paid a commission of $100-$200 by the owner of Europe-bound boats for each migrant he delivers. But he said that, for last month’s fatal voyage, he had delivered no more than 30 of the hundreds who sailed. And he defended his trade: “It’s a useful thing for people who lose their home and they lose their job and they need a place to continue their lives. All of them dream to travel to Europe. All of them know the danger.”

Additional reporting by Uzma Gulbahar in London

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