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Mediterranean migrants have no place to land

International | Border closures due to the coronavirus pandemic further fuel a European crisis
by Onize Ohikere
Posted 5/15/20, 02:54 pm

The merchant vessel Marina was heading to the international shipping hub at Malta Freeport when the Maltese government ordered it to undertake a rescue mission. The ship’s 13 crew members obeyed, and on May 3, they took in 78 migrants from Libya they found drifting off southern Italy near the island of Lampedusa in a wooden boat with a busted engine.

The Marina’s crew had insufficient food and water for such a large group. None of them had experience with migrant rescues. And when the boat neared Malta, border officials refused to let the passengers come ashore.

Many European nations have closed their borders because of the coronavirus pandemic, but migrants keep departing from Libya and crossing the Mediterranean Sea. They end up stranded between closed ports and a worsening conflict in Libya.

Italy allowed the migrants to disembark in Sicily after five days of wrangling with the Maltese government. In the meantime, the ship’s crew had to recycle air conditioning water to use for cleaning and flushing toilets. Sea Watch International, a Mediterranean rescue group, reported the Marina was running short of food and people had to sleep in the open.

In a similar case last month, at least 12 migrants died after nearly a week at sea in Maltese territory before a fishing vessel returned them to Libya.

Malta has seen a surge in migrant arrivals this year, recording 1,500 entries by early March, compared to 3,400 in all of 2019. On April 9, the Maltese government warned migrants planning to make the journey that it would no longer allow them to disembark, noting it had done so in recent years without tangible help from the European Union.

“It is in the interest and responsibility of such people not to endanger themselves on a risky voyage to a country which is not in a position to offer them a secure harbor,” the government announced.

Malta has instead held 57 migrants on a ship for about two weeks just outside its territorial waters. Last week, it chartered a second vessel to hold about 105 rescued refugees. Maltese Prime Minister Robert Abela said the passengers will remain there until the EU can relocate them.

A day before Malta’s announcement, Italy also closed its ports to migrants, saying they could no longer be considered “places of safety” due to the pandemic. Simeon Leisch of Alarm Phone, an independent hotline for migrants crossing the Mediterranean, called the tactics a familiar method to pressure the EU to help.

Last week, United Nations human rights office spokesman Rupert Colville warned maritime centers not to ignore distress calls and not to coordinate efforts to return boats back to Libya.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants are stranded in detention centers and informal settlements in Libya, where fighting between the rival governments over territory in and around Tripoli has intensified in past weeks. The clashes have hindered the Libyan coast guard’s ability to intercept migrant boats before they head out.

Despite the pandemic, hundreds of migrants continue to arrive at the Niger-Libya border, said Safa Msehli, the communications officer with the International Organization for Migration.

Libya has 64 confirmed coronavirus cases, three deaths, and 28 recoveries. Msehli said officials have not reported any cases in Libyan detention centers, but concerns remain. Many of the facilities struggle with a lack of water, electricity, and hygiene products.

International and local aid partnerships have hosted disinfectant campaigns, conducted health screenings for coronavirus symptoms, and coordinated food delivery.

It’s a very difficult environment to try and alleviate the suffering of the people while not having the authority or at least the support to end such a system,” Msehli said.

Associated Press/Photo by Fareed Khan (file) Associated Press/Photo by Fareed Khan (file) An open sewer in Karachi, Pakistan

Deadly discrimination

A recent spate of deaths of Christian sewer cleaners in Pakistan has drawn attention to persistent caste discrimination in the Islamic nation.

Christians make up about 1.6 percent of Pakistan’s population, but they occupy about 80 percent of the sweeper roles. Caste discrimination—a holdover from when the country was part of India—forces Christian minorities at the bottom of the social hierarchy into dirty, dangerous jobs as sewer cleaners. They unclog pipes of feces, plastics, and refuse with bare hands. Flowing sludge has carried sweepers away, and noxious gases have asphyxiated them.

Some lower-case Hindus in the region converted to Christianity centuries ago, hoping to break free of the discrimination as “untouchables.” Instead, discrimination continued. Christian sweeper Michael Sadiq watched his cousin suffocate and die in the sewers in 2019. He wants to escape the job, but poverty, illiteracy, and discrimination stand in his way.

“This work has become so dangerous that I need to find a way out,” Sadiq told The New York Times.

Pakistan’s systemic and egregious religious persecution prompted the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom to urge the U.S. State Department to keep Pakistan on the latest list of countries of particular concern. On May 5, the Pakistani government announced the creation of a National Commission for Minorities. USCIRF Commissioner Johnnie Moore said the move was, “undoubtedly a step in the right direction, though more steps are certainly required.” —Julia A. Seymour

Associated Press/Photo by Ebrahim Noroozi (file) Associated Press/Photo by Ebrahim Noroozi (file) Graves of coronavirus patients in Babol, Iran

Proposed prisoner swap

Iran on Sunday called for an unconditional exchange of all prisoners with the United States due to the coronavirus pandemic. Iranian government spokesman Ali Rabiei said the United States has yet to respond to its request: “We hope that as the outbreak of the COVID-19 disease threatens the lives of Iranian citizens in the U.S. prisons, the U.S. government eventually will prefer lives to politics.”

In a rare act of cooperation, the two nations in December swapped American graduate student Xiyue Wang, who was held on spying charges, with Iranian researcher Masoud Soleimani, accused of violating trade sanctions. In March, Iran released American detainee Michael White on medical furlough, although he is required to remain in the country.

The United States has not confirmed Iran’s reports of a prisoner swap offer. —O.O.

Associated Press (file) Associated Press (file) Sylvia Costanza Romano

A happy reunion

Silvia Romano, an Italian aid worker held hostage in Africa for 18 months, hugged her parents and sister as she landed in Rome on Sunday.

Suspected Al-Shabaab gunmen abducted Romano, who worked for the Italian charity Africa Milele Onlus, in southeastern Kenya in November 2018. Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte has thanked the intelligence agents who worked for her release in neighboring Somalia. Officials did not confirm if they paid a ransom.

In Romano’s hometown of Milan, church bells rang out and people applauded from their balconies to welcome her home. —O.O.

Onize Ohikere

Onize is WORLD's Africa reporter. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a journalism degree from Minnesota State University-Moorhead. Onize resides in Abuja, Nigeria. Follow her on Twitter @onize_ohiks.

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  • OldMike
    Posted: Sat, 05/16/2020 12:28 pm

    Praise God that there are some bright spots among so much bad news in the world, such as the release of Xiyue Wang, Michael White, and Sylvia Romano from captivity!!