Radio Erena: 27 May 2021
Each year in the springtime, as the choppy winter seas give way to the warmer spring waters, refugee crossings on the Mediterrean Sea rise sharply. This inevitably means one thing: the number of refugees dying will be on the rise as well.
Somali poet Warsan Shire wrote that “no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.” It is that loss of hope and desperation to reach safety that drives people to take this journey despite the known dangers. And with more than 17,000 deaths on the sea since 2014, it is no wonder people refer to these dark waters as a graveyard for refugees.
The recurring images of dead bodies washing up on shores sparked a visceral reaction in both the families of the deceased and Europeans watching the nightmare unfold, and this has resulted in an unlikely pairing. A group of Italians are teaming up with members of the Eritrean diaspora to raise money for a new rescue operation called ResQ: People Saving People. Expected to launch this summer, they hope to purchase a new boat and begin saving lives at sea.
What sets this mission apart is the way it has mobilized Eritreans abroad. Alisha Tesfalem, one of the D.C.-based organizers spearheading the project, said “It is a tangible solution to a huge crisis facing our people. And I relate to the cause because my uncle died in 2007 in the Mediterranean Sea along with 30 other people… all of us – from all perspectives and backgrounds – can come together and help save lives.”
Despite the dangers at sea, refugees who face a daily threat of robberies, kidnappings, extortion, abuse, human trafficking and death in Libya continue to make the treacherous journey. So far in 2021, UNHCR reports that fewer than 200 refugees have been evacuated out of the country; in that same time frame, IOM estimates that about 8,000 people have been intercepted at sea by the Libyan Coast Guard and returned to Libya’s shores.
These interceptions are the direct result of the EU’s policy of externalization. Instead of providing safe routes for refugees to escape Libya, they have focused on funding border patrols across North and Central Africa to stem migration before asylum seekers reach Europe’s doorstep. An agreement Italy signed with Libya in 2017 is one example of this policy, as it continues to provide EU funding and training to the Libyan Coast Guard to block refugee boats before they reach international waters. Upon being returned to Libya, refugees face indefinite imprisonment in detention centers with well documented human rights abuses, or are sold to traffickers who run torture camps that ransom refugees’ lives to their families abroad.
On the boats that do manage to break through into European waters, passengers spend days at sea without access to fresh water or protection from the hot sun, causing many people to suffer from dehydration and heat stroke. When the flimsy boats take on water, the sea water mixes with fuel and causes chemical burns to the men, women, and children on board.
Rescue NGOs already operating at sea are doing the best they can to respond to the massive need, but the odds are stacked against them. In April, this was made painfully clear when a migrant boat carrying 130 people sank, after NGOs spent 48 hours calling for European Search and Rescue (SAR) to come to their aid. One rescue ship, the Ocean Viking, raced to reach the site but their arrival came too late; they found only the wreckage. There were no survivors.
Bereket Desta, one of the organizers living in Washington, D.C. who helped launch the U.S. initiative after Dr. Alganesh Fisseha – a co-founder of ResQ and Eritrean humanitarian living in Italy – reached out to him, reflects on the Eritrean community’s collective pain. “When the 2013 tragedy happened in Lampedusa that killed 366 African refugees I was living in Europe. I saw these people suffering, applying for their asylum, crossing borders from one European country to another, getting fingerprinted. I knew these people, some of them came to my house. I’m also a parent, and when I see the future generation vanish in the sea it cuts deeper, it makes you sad.”
ResQ has already succeeded in registering with the Italian Search and Rescue (SAR) platform, which permits them to start taking on rescue missions at sea. Because of this, the organization is hopeful they will be able to carry out their operations with limited roadblocks from the EU. Only time will tell whether they will be able to overcome the challenges European states have set for organizations like theirs; but for the Eritrean community who have watched thousands of their loved ones drown in the sea, the stakes have never been higher.
Based in Florida, advocate Khalieb Abraham believes the project has the chance to do some good. “I hope we will be able to help these people in need. We are also refugees like them, but we came a long time ago and it was much easier then. The refugees reach out to their families abroad and ask us to save their lives. We have to help. To me it is a must, I don’t have any other choice.”
To donate, go to https://fundly.com/eritrean-resq-boat.
For more information about ResQ: People Saving People, visit their website at www.resq.it.
By Andrea Gagne