Boat tragedy highlights Eritreans' plight

The recent boat tragedy off the Italian island of Lampedusa has highlighted the numbers of people who continue to flee Eritrea, many risking their lives at sea.  

(Transcript from World News Australia Radio)

The recent boat tragedy off the Italian island of Lampedusa has highlighted the numbers of people who continue to flee Eritrea, many risking their lives at sea.

The UN estimates several thousand people have been defying a shoot-to-kill order to leave Eritrea each month, and have been doing so for years.

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The boat that caught fire and overturned in Italy on October 3rd had been carrying more than 500 people, and the accident killed more than half of them.

Many were African asylum-seekers, mainly from Eritrea.

Over the course of a few days prior to this, 13 Eritreans died in other accidents around Italy's coast.

And at the end of September, five Eritreans were among the 50 people either missing or dead after a boat sank off Agrabinta, a remote area of the coast of west Java, in Indonesia.

This man, who lives in Israel, has told SBS Radio's Tigrinya program his brother died in the boat that sank on its way to Australia.

"My brother used to live in Saudi Arabia for two years; we have heard that there were eight Eritreans among the people in the boat. Five of them including my brother died and three were alive."

This Eritrean survived the accident at Lampedusa and gave details of the accident.

"We were two to three kilometres away from Lampedusa. We turned on our torches to get help. We waited for two hours but no one came to help us. To get more attention the captain lit a blanket with fire but he got burned and threw the burning blanket overboard, but the ship started to burn. Everybody ran to one side in fear of fire and the ship lost balance and turned over. Some of us swam for four hours. Those who could not swim, and all women and children, drowned."

Many of the survivors say the destination countries should be in some way accountable for the deaths.

Some survivors of the Australia-bound boat told ABC news they had been speaking by phone to Australian authorities for 24 hours, but they didn't come.

And Italy's policy on irregular migration has been accused of violating human rights.

In 2012, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights condemned Italy for intercepting migrants at sea and deporting them back to Libya.

Anton Giulio Lana is a lawyer and general secretary of Italy's UFTDU, a human rights association.

He's told SBS Radio's Italian program Italy's turn back the boats policy violates several important provisions of European human rights law.

"Italy was condemned because of the violation of article 3, which forbids torture and degrading treatment of human beings, because these people, once they were sent back to Libya, risked being tortured or being sent to centres with an insufficient human rights track record, or they even risked being sent back to their country of origin. Italy was also condemned because the Convention forbids sending back people who are at sea or group deportation, which happened in this instance."

Behind the flood of Eritrean asylum-seekers is the security situation in their country of origin.

A community advocate in Australia, Doctor Berhan Ahmed, explains.

"Eritrea is governed by ruthless dictatorship; the violation of human rights is the root cause of the refugee crisis that has emerged. UNHCR reports about 3000 Eritreans monthly coming out of Eritrea but the CIA estimates 5,000 refugees flee Eritrea every month. This is despite the shoot-to-kill policy by the Eritrean government at the border. Any refugee fleeing their country they shoot them. This is partly one of the causes that people are leaving their country because of the system is ruthless."

Father Musie Zerai, a rights activist in Europe, says there's only one way to stop people risking their lives at sea.

"The basic solution to this problem is to find ways of peace and stability in the country of origin. That is the number one and best solution. The temporary solution is countries should respect human rights and so these countries should help the asylum seekers who fled persecution. Instead of letting people to go by boats and risk their lives in the seas, the countries should bring refugees legally. The reason why these people risk their lives is because they could not get legal acceptance from these countries."

Source World News Australia


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