Migrants with life jackets provided by volunteers of the Ocean Viking, a migrant search and rescue ship run by NGOs SOS Mediterranee and the International Federation of Red Cross (IFCR)
( AP Photo/Jeremias Gonzalez, File
Melissa Harris-Perry: I am Melissa Harris-Perry, and you are with The Takeaway. This is Alexis Okeowo, staff writer at The New Yorker, and they're reading here from their most recent piece, The Crisis of Missing Migrants.
Alexis Okeowo: In the past decade, the Mediterranean Sea and the shores of Italy, Malta, Cypress and Greece have become a vast graveyard. As a result of conflict, repression, economic circumstances, famine and drought, more than two million people have tried to cross the Mediterranean to Europe since 2014, mostly from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. At least 25,000 have disappeared in the crossing and are presumed dead. Most of these bodies remain at the bottom of the sea. Some have washed ashore and been buried in unmarked graves, 2000 in Italy alone.
Melissa: Alexis is reporting details, the ongoing crisis of death and loss as millions attempt the dangerous crossing from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East to Southern Europe.
Alexis: It's a massive crisis. The most conservative estimate we have is that at least 25,000 people have gone missing on the journey over the Mediterranean trying to make it to Europe. There are likely in terms of thousands of people more. These people have ended up at the bottom of the sea or perhaps in the deserts of North Africa but it's a huge crisis.
Melissa: Is the crisis new? This crossing is one that has gone on in different waves, but for generations. I'm wondering if something new has happened to deepen this crisis.
Alexis: One thing is that, the reasons for why there are more people taking this dangerous journey across the Mediterranean and not surviving have increased because now we have the problems of climate change, drought, extreme weather pushing people to migrate in addition to the reasons of political repression, violence, conflict that have pushed people from places like Africa and the Middle East to Europe for decades.
We also see a situation now where some southern European countries are criminalizing aid organizations that are trying to help migrants in the sea. Crossing the ocean is such a dangerous journey and one that migrants are forced to take because there are no usually safer ways to cross to Europe, they risk their lives on a daily basis. Now some countries are prosecuting aid organizations for trying to help migrants in the sea. What's result in that is that there are more migrants dying in the process because no one is helping them.
Melissa: I want you to help us to understand why this journey is so dangerous for those who might not be fully familiar with the geography or the terrain. What is it that migrants are encountering?
Alexis: Basically, many of the migrants are coming as I mentioned before, from sub-Saharan Africa. When they're doing that, they need to get to often Libya, which is at the tip of Northern Africa in order to board what is often a rickety boat piloted by human traffickers to get across the ocean so that they can make it to Italy and Malta in Greece because Europe does not create it or allowed sort of safe passageways for migrants to apply for refugee status or asylum or immigration.
Very vulnerable people are getting to Libya, they're often thrown into detention centers for potentially months at a time. Then they pay somewhere in the region, maybe $2,000 to get on a boat. They have to pay more if they want a life jacket. They're often crammed really tightly onto these boats that, as we've seen, have sunk in the sea, have capsized. The ones who do make it to Europe count themselves very lucky because it's not a guaranteed outcome.
Melissa: Let's talk a bit about those aid organizations. What are they trying to do and why is it being criminalized?
Alexis: Yes, what they're trying to do is they see that there are tens of thousands of people disappearing, dying in the ocean and no one is trying to change this. No policy regarding migrants refugees is actually being affected to alleviate this problem. They take their ships out into the ocean and try to help ships that are in distress and bring the migrants on board and then try to take them to safety and disembark in southern Europe.
Now countries from Greece to Italy are saying, no, you can't disembark on our shores causing a lot of these ships to just float in the sea for a while. Then they've also started charging the captains and the staff of these ships with a crime of helping migrants and saying that they're helping illegal immigration. It's a very unfortunate cruel thing, what they've done in terms of really dehumanizing the people making the journey and further criminalizing just the act of wanting to leave one's home for a better future, for a better life, and feeling forced to do that.
Melissa: What do you say to folks who might respond? Look, people understand the dangers of this journey and certainly, no one is wishing them harm, but they understand it is a life-and-death journey. They're making that choice. Why should they be aided in essentially breaking immigration law?
Alexis: So many of these countries actually do have longstanding either economic colonial ties with the countries that are receiving a lot of the migrants from those source countries. A lot of these countries in Europe do have policies of applying for refugee status, for applying for asylum but you have to make it there. Since that is a right, I think people have to understand that the kind of desperation that forces someone to leave their home, to leave their community, to leave their children, often their spouses, and to know you're willingly risking death, rape, so many terrible circumstances is extreme.
I think we really have to think about what is it like to be in that situation, what is it like to feel that terror and desperation and wanting to look for something better for yourself and your family?
Melissa: We need to take a brief pause. We'll be right back with more on The Crisis of Missing Migrants.
Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, still with Alexis Okeowo, staff writer for The New Yorker. We're discussing the crisis of missing migrants in the Mediterranean. In her recent piece for The New Yorker, Okeowo writes about Alma, a woman she met who has a powerful story.
Alexis: I was really struck by her because we met actually in Germany after she had done one of the most arduous journeys. She was born in Eritrea, in the Horn of Africa which is a very repressive police State. She first left there with her infant because she didn't want her son to be forcibly conscripted into the military there for the rest of his life and endure all sorts of abuses. They made it to Sudan where because they were undocumented, they were at risk of being returned to Eritrea. She finally decided, "I'm going to try to make it to Europe even though I know how dangerous it is", even though the father of her son had already died trying to make it to Europe.
She knew she would have to leave her son behind because she didn't want to risk the chance of him dying as well. She did make it and she thought, "Okay, now I can call for my son. He can join me." He was only eight years old at the time. Actually, he was six. Then she was told he can't actually join her because there was no proof that the father of her son was dead because he was in a shipwreck off the coast of Italy where some of the bodies were recovered, but not all of them, and there was no real state effort to identify who was in the ship where these bodies are, name these bodies, there was no real proof that the father of her son was dead though she knew he was and his family did too.
For eight years she has not seen her son except for over the phone. She's been trying to get him to join her in Europe to no avail, and she's just stuck in this limbo. Getting to Europe was supposed to be the dream, but she's still separated from her family. So many people are like her in this situation, where they've lost loved ones in the sea and shipwrecks. Those relatives are buried in unmarked graves all across Southern Europe. There's no real effort except for a few individual efforts like at the University of Milan, where there's a lab trying to identify some shipwreck victims.
There's just a real lack of care and humanity given to people who don't make it on the journey, whose bodies turn up. European states just look at them and are like, "Oh, well," not taking to the fact that these people had families, had lives, had relatives who actually are in Europe. People like Alma are stuck in this limbo. It's like, these people who died, who don't have names, they're gone, but their presence is still all around us in a sense. It's an invisible crisis.
Melissa: Alexis Okeowo, thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.
Alexis: No, thank you.
Melissa: Alexis Okeowo is staff writer at TheNew Yorker.
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