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Crossing the Mediterranean Sea

by Dr Vicki Squire, 8 September 2015

There has been a sudden intensification of moral calls in Europe to protect the plight of refugees from Syria. But what does this mean for those who do not qualify as bone fide refugees? What does it mean for those who would not be considered as legitimate under the Pope’s call for local communities to host those fleeing conflict?

Today I listened to the story of a young man from a sub-Saharan African state, who travelled through West Africa and across the Saharan desert to Libya in search of work that would enable him to support his family. Unable to cope with conditions that he described in terms of the loss of humanity in Libya, this young man was faced with a dilemma. Would it be better to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe, or to return via the Sahara to his home country?

This young man described the journey across the Sahara as an unbearable one. Having spent three days in a pick up truck, he was unable to walk on arriving to Libya, and his face was scarred and burnt from the sand and the sun. He described how people were held in the truck by a piece of wood, that if broken left them tumbling to their deaths. I don’t think that I would be able to take such a journey back home knowing this is what I would face.

Choosing the Mediterranean route was not an easy choice, of course. The young man described how he was faced with a dilemma of possible death in either direction, as well as the continuous threat of death each day. He did not leave his home with the intention of reaching Europe. He expressed gratitude to the German and Italian authorities that rescued his boat at sea (which began with 101 passengers and was rescued with 52). He shared that he would never have left his home country if he had any prospects for work there.

So as my daughter of the same age is preparing for university life, this young man is preparing for what he says only God knows: for the next stage in his journey. Meanwhile, I am wondering if the moral calls in Europe risk perpetuating the suffering of others like this young man, who don’t fit the categories of protection that the Pope, German authorities, and many admirably well-meaning people are striving to support.

Moral calls for the protection of refugees are crucial and to be supported. The challenge now is whether this can be done without counterposing one group of people with those who don’t fit established categories of protection. If we are really going to change this longstanding situation of deaths in the Mediterranean, Europe needs to go a step further in addressing migratory journeys and experiences.