“Asylum is not only about responsibility and interdependence but about morality. In an age of globalisation, it is simply not possible to ignore the world’s dispossessed. How a state deals with its refugees should be a measure of its social and political health.” Caroline Moorehead
Nearly 1,000 people die every year in the Mediterranean Sea, which is fast becoming the graveyard of Europe. Abandoning homes, families and what remains of war-ravaged livelihoods, they risk life and limb in the desperate hope for a safer existence.
But that isn't the angle that predominates in the telling of this story. Headlines tend to focus on Western countries being swamped with illegal immigrants.
The picture that forms in the public’s mind is of a threat, a nuisance – asylum is a murky issue on which everyone has an opinion. But how many truly understand the reality?
In the past 15 years, some 14,000 migrants have died trying to reach Europe via the Italian island of Lampedusa, where a reception centre has been running since the early 2000s. The centre’s capacity for 800 people has been stretched beyond limits, to the point where those who do make it are often living in squalor and a protracted limbo state.
This year more than 30,000 migrants have sailed to Italy, of whom 7,500 were Syrians fleeing their civil war, 7,500 Eritreans escaping a brutal regime and 3,000 avoiding violence in Somalia.
Most recently 370 migrants were rescued from three boats in the waters between Libya and Sicily. Prior to that, at least 33 migrants died when their boat capsized between Malta and Lampedusa. A week earlier, more than 350 migrants died in another shipwreck off the island, one of the deadliest such incidents in recent years.
Desperate reality of asylum
Behind each of those statistics is a life of an individual who was forced into a situation where the only route to survival was via a hazardous journey through what the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has called “the deadliest stretch of water” and what Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat has described as “a cemetery within our Mediterranean Sea”.
Survivors frequently recount harrowing stories, not only of the human rights abuses and torture that they fled in their own countries, but of being forced onto unseaworthy vessels by armed guards. Some have even reported cases of abuse at the hands of other passengers during the journey.
The question that enough people don’t seem to be asking is why? Why would anyone expose themselves to this continual cycle of trauma?
The reality is that people are often left with no other choice, it’s either face death in one country or risk it to another, in the hope that life is surely better elsewhere. Isn’t this something that we all have a right to hope for – a life unfettered by violence, harassment, poverty and daily hardship?
One of the best books I’ve written on the subject is Human Cargo by Caroline Moorehead, in which the stories she recounts make an irrefutable case for the rights of asylum seekers, demonstrating how the issue has been confused and conflated – often deliberately for political ends – with the contentious question of illegal immigration.
It’s a problem of perception, as Moorehead puts it, of “lies, inaccuracies, exaggerations and untruths”, where government policy reacts to the public and media hype rather than responding to the needs of people seeking refuge. A state’s obligations under the UN Convention for Refugees and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are sidestepped in the scramble for the popular vote.
It’s a system where, as Moorehad describes it, “those seeking asylum, buffeted by the chaotic, contradictory and discriminatory procedures now operating across the Western world, scramble for a toehold using any method they can”.
Modern day activism
So what difference can a blog make? Can it really change anything? Maybe not one, but thousands certainly can, by making a loud, unified call for change, and by actively demonstrating that enough of us appreciate this reality and are unwilling to accept it as the fate of people who you cannot dismiss if you care an ounce for humanity.
Blog Action Day is an outright demonstration of one of the fundamental and most often repressed human rights – freedom of expression. Those of us in the so-called developed world have the ability to express that right, to challenge injustice and demand a fairer, better world for everyone. It may sound idealistic, but it’s from well–founded ideals that many of the declarations in which our human rights are enshrined first emerged.
In the words of Aung San Suu Kyi:
“The cause of liberty and justice finds sympathetic responses in far reaches of the globe. Thinking and feeling people everywhere regardless of colour or creed, understand the deeply-rooted human need for a meaningful existence. Those fortunate to live in societies where they are entitled to full political rights can reach out to help the less fortunate in other parts of our troubled planet.”