BBC News (Geneva) – The latest tragedy in the Mediterranean has, not before time, human rights groups say, put the spotlight on the situations which drive people to make the perilous boat journey to Europe, and the many dangers they face along the way.
It is believed most of the dead came from Eritrea and Somalia, so all must have taken not only the risky sea crossing, but a long and hazardous journey across the Sahara desert as well.
“I still can’t believe it when I think about the Sahara,” said Samson Kidane, an Eritrean who is now a refugee in Switzerland.
“It was so difficult to cross. We were more than 30 people in a small automobile, and later we were in a container, more than 120 people for 24 hours.”
Mr Kidane, like many young Eritreans, fled his country’s forced, indefinite military conscription, a system which requires all citizens to serve in the army for an unlimited amount of time.
Human rights groups have condemned the practice as akin to slavery, claiming that a lack of freedom of press and expression, and widespread arbitrary detention and torture, mean that the only real way to avoid conscription is to flee the country.
Until June of this year, Switzerland accepted avoidance of Eritrea’s military service as a valid reason for claiming asylum, and the country now has one of Europe’s biggest communities of Eritrean refugees.
But Switzerland, like many European countries, no longer allows applications for asylum to be made at its embassies abroad, meaning that anyone wanting to make a claim must make their way, somehow, to Switzerland.
Human rights groups suggest Europe’s asylum policies are a contributory factor to the regular boat tragedies in the Mediterranean.
Daniela Enzler, an asylum adviser with Amnesty International and the Swiss charity Caritas, said she was not surprised by this week’s loss of life.
“Almost every week boats sink in the Mediterranean,” she said. “It’s a tragedy that people can’t apply for asylum in embassies anymore. If they could, they would not have to risk this journey… Lives could be saved.”
Two out of five
When Mr Kidane was finally granted refugee status by the Swiss, it was the end of a journey which could easily have cost him his life.
After crossing the Sahara, which cost each man more than $1,000 (£621; 735 euros), he and his friends had to find what he calls a “businessman” to get them across the Mediterranean.
“If you pay the money for the journey, the businessman sometimes disappears with the money,” he said.
In the end his trafficker took another $1,200 from each member of the group, and organised five small boats, each carrying around 30 people.
After 53 hours at sea, Mr Kidane arrived in Italy. But only two boats arrived. Three had sunk, one of them carrying his best friend.
Both human rights groups like Amnesty International and the UN refugee agency have expressed concern that national coastguards and Europe’s joint border patrol Frontex are more interested in pushing migrants and asylum seekers back than they are in rescuing those in distress.
“Nearly every asylum seeker I have met who made the Mediterranean crossing told me they had seen boats pass by, even helicopters flying overhead,” said Daniela Enzler, “but distress calls were ignored.”
That allegation is borne out by the experience of Bemnet Aron, who fled Eritrea aged just 17. An exhausting journey across the Sahara was followed by three months working in Libya, while he tried to earn the money for the sea crossing.