Thousands of men, women and children fleeing civil unrest, famine or war lose their lives in the Mediterranean on the final leg of a voyage, born of desperation and hope, to Europe.
Now, a 43-year-old French-Canadian is embarking on a trip from Tunisia to Brussels, braving wind and waves in a flimsy kayak to draw attention to a tragedy that continues to unfold.
Georges Alexandre hopes his trip will highlight the serious lack of provision for migrants heading for countries bordering the Mediterranean. He will break his 3,000-kilometre odyssey in cities and towns along his route to present politicians and local people with a petition already signed by Lampedusa’s elected representatives and voluntary groups and to urge Europe to reform the institutions in which immigrants and asylum seekers are interned.
In November 2010, at the beginning of his seven-month stay on Lampedusa, the so-called gateway to Europe, Alex circumnavigated the island in his kayak to draw attention to the plight of the refugees illegally expelled to Libya by the Italian government. He saw at first hand the problems caused by the influx of migrants and how it was managed locally. During the mass landings of migrants in February and March 2011 he witnessed the chaos confronting the thousands of Tunisians and the people of Lampedusa as a direct result of government inefficiency (for more on this story, see the September 2011 issue of New Internationalist). An observer for the human rights group EveryOne, Alexandre sent reports to members of the European Parliament, to the UNHCR and diverse non-governmental organizations. He also helped the migrants to find food, housing and care on the island.
The fault lines in the existing system for receiving migrants to Europe were clearly exposed, along with the need to introduce serious practical measures to manage the flow of migrants and thus avoid both the overload that occurred on Lampedusa and the injustices perpetrated in numerous detention centres hastily set up elsewhere. Alex intends his voyage to challenge the European Community to face up to the cost, both financial and human, which results from the West’s portrayal of itself as a 'promised land' while in reality offering only a gaping chasm, void of humanitarianism, in which innocent people suffer or disappear.
At present Georges Alexandre is at Monastir, Tunisia, preparing for his long voyage north. He will kayak to Lampedusa, Malta and Sicily before hugging the west coast of Italy to reach Marseille, gateway to the rivers and canals of France and northern Europe. He intends to arrive in Brussels in December. Along the way he hopes to gather a convoy of boats of every kind to send a clear message to Europe.
Adapted from a press release issued by Georges Alexandre.