New Internationalist

PHOTO ESSAY: For Eritrean migrants, there is more dignity in death

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Tim Baster and Isabelle Merminod capture the painful goodbyes of the survivors of the recent Lampedusa tragedy and the victims’ families.

On 3 October, a 17 metre long smuggler’s boat sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa. At around 3am around 550 people, mostly Eritreans, fought for their lives in the sea. Officials have given slightly differing figures, but some 370 bodies have now been recovered while 156 survived the sinking.

Approximately 16,000 people died on the EU border from 1998 to 2012 according to UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, François Crépeau.

But EU politicians speak of further tightening border control as if turning irregular migration into a security issue will stop people fleeing from repression.

Above: Italian politicians spoke of national funerals and even the grant of posthumous citizenship. But two weeks later, there is only silence. The coffins at the port of Lampedusa are lifted onto the deck of the Italian naval vessel, the Libra, for their next journey to Sicily. Many bodies have still not been identified by relatives or survivors.

Above: In the presence of international journalists, survivors recount the sinking of their decrepit boat that sailed from Libya. Some had spent two months in a Libyan safe house waiting for the smuggler’s boat to leave for Italy, their next destination. They lost friends and relatives. They knew the children. 370 lost their life on this journey; 156 have to continue theirs.

Above: Mostly from Europe, relatives come to identify their loved ones. They spend hours in the Carabineri’s (Italian military police) office in front of hundreds of photos of bodies or looking at photos of objects and jewellery that might have belonged to their loved ones. Occasionally a coffin would be lowered to the quay to allow relatives to mourn. Although time was limited, they were able to mourn in front of a named coffin not a number.

Above: As the children’s coffins are carried to the naval vessel by survivors, soldiers and police stand to attention in an honour guard on either side. But when the children lived they were forced to run Europe’s tight border controls in a dangerous boat with no navigation instruments.

Above: After spending some time by the side of a coffin, an Eritrean relative looks on, distraught. Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta has said that the victims are now ‘Italian citizens’. But were EU immigration polices based on human rights, not xenophobia and hatred, these 370 people might not have taken a dangerous boat to arrive in Italy and might still be alive.

Above: The white coffins for the eight children found in the wreckage of the boat at Lampedusa’s shore are brought back together with the other coffins and will be transported to Sicily. A teddy bear – a gift from Italian children – was placed on top of each coffin.

Above: Christians and Muslims pray together remembering the dead in a final farewell before letting the boat make its journey to Sicily. Relatives and survivors do not know where the bodies will go next.* The Eritrean government has asked for the repatriation of the bodies to Eritrea.

Above: These migrants are not the first to have died near the coast of Lampedusa, and tragically, are unlikely to be the last. In April, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants, François Crépeau condemned the border control policies of the European Union and the ‘political discourse’ which turns irregular migration into a ‘security problem.’

He believes that ‘repression of irregular migration is counterproductive, as it drives migrants further underground, thereby empowering smuggling rings, and creating conditions of alienation and marginalization that foster human rights violations.’

Will European leaders listen?

All photographs are the copyright of Tim Baster and Isabelle Merminod.

*It is now known that the bodies are being buried in cemeteries in Sicily.

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