Migrant Boat Shipwreck Off Tunisia: An Illustration Of Systemic Racism In European Policy

Last week, a boat carrying migrants and asylum seekers sank off the coast of Tunisia. It was headed for the Italian coast and its passengers were primarily from Sub-Saharan Africa. According to local authorities, at least 61 people were killed in the shipwreck. These tragic deaths are a direct result of Europe’s hostile and inhumane migration policies. With lack of any alternative, migrants in search of safety on Europe’s shores undertake highly dangerous journeys and continuously put their lives at risk. These recent events off the Tunisian coast, which are all too familiar, beg the question: how many senseless deaths in the Mediterranean must occur before desperately needed reform to Europe’s asylum and migration policies is implemented?

According to an initial reconstruction of events, the boat departed from the coastal Tunisian city of Sfax. It then capsized off the Kerkennah Islands between 4-5 June. The shipwreck was then brought to the attention of local authorities after bodies in the water were sighted by fishermen. On Saturday, Tunisian Officials stated that the death toll had risen from the originally reported 39 to 61. Among these fatalities were 22 women, including one who was pregnant. Additionally, four children were among those who lost their lives. Tunisian authorities have initiated an investigation into the event, in an attempt to find who organized the journey.

In a jarring parallel to the death of George Floyd, it was reported that “I can’t breathe” were among the last calls for help of those who drowned.

Tunisia serves as a transit and departure country for those fleeing other parts of Africa and aiming to reach Europe. The country is also a source of migrants and asylum seekers seeking to cross the Mediterranean. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, attempts to reach Italy from Tunisia have increased by 150% in the first four months of 2020 compared to the same period of last year. Hanan Hamdan, Tunisia’s representative for UNHCR, has stated she was “concerned about this new trend in departures.” She added: “We need to provide people with meaningful alternatives that can prevent extreme choices in search of a better life.”

It is evident that until serious change is implemented, migrants and asylum seekers will continue to be faced with no option but to put their lives at risk in search of safety. In regard to this, Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s Special Envoy for the Central Mediterranean, has expressed concern that the numbers of those attempting the journey will only continue to increase. He stated: “Fifty-three per cent of migrants and refugees lost their jobs during the Covid-19 restrictions in Tunisia. It is not clear how many will manage to get a job back or will face tougher competition with locals. Despair drives people to risk their lives and smugglers keep lying to them.”

Conditions for those attempting the crossing in recent months became increasingly dangerous and desperate, particularly with the spread of coronavirus. In April, Italy and Malta closed their ports to arrivals of asylum seekers with the pretext of containing the virus. However, this led boats carrying migrants and asylum seekers to be left adrift in European search and rescue zones. As a result, an unknown number of individuals died of starvation, dehydration and drowning.

The tragic loss of life which recently occurred off the Tunisian coast is not an isolated event. It illustrates the systemic racism which is deeply ingrained into European policy. In a statement following the event, search and rescue NGO Alarm Phone summarised the issue by highlighting: “Europe’s borders are built on the killing and disappearing of black bodies.” With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the world should be united in condemnation over these deaths. Black Lives Matter in the Mediterranean and Europe’s borders kill.

Lauryn Sinclair

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