Georges Alexandre on Lampedusa, at the beginning of his journey. Photo: Courtesy of G Alexandre.
A year and a month into a 3,000-kilometre kayak odyssey, activist Georges Alexandre has reached Rome on his way to present a petition to the European Parliament in Brussels, calling for a new Europe-wide system for humane management of migration.
The Kayak for the Right to Life project started on the Italian island of Lampedusa, which, at less than 161 kilometres from the Tunisian coast, is known as the Gateway into Europe for millions of Africans.
Georges, who is 44 years old, originally intended to circumnavigate the island by kayak to highlight the potentially tragic cost of the migrants’ dreams of a better life: 13,500 are believed to have drowned attempting to cross the Mediterranean since 1998. According to Human Rights Watch, an estimated 1,500-2,000 migrants died travelling from Africa to Europe in 2011.
The former office worker is French but moved to Canada in his twenties and was first sensitized to the politics of migration by his travels in the Americas. He came to Lampedusa in late 2010 and witnessed the crisis of early 2011 when, in the wake of uprisings in Tunisia and Libya, over 30,000 people swamped the tiny island.
Seeing what he describes as the ‘inhuman treatment’ of the migrants, and after completing his initial plan to kayak round Lampedusa, he set his mind on the more epic project of kayaking to Brussels.
He left his starting point of Tunisia on 10 September 2011, kayaking the 170 kilometres back to Lampedusa, followed by 220 kilometres east to Malta. To kayak stretches across open sea he required a boat to escort him. Problems finding a skipper for the next leg to Sicily meant he did not leave Malta until June this year.
Since then he has travelled round Sicily and up the southern Italian coastline, kayaking for days at a time, spending nights on beaches in his tent and eventually going back overland to pick up his van. ‘Speed is not the point,’ he says. ‘My project is about sensitizing people to the situation.’
Migrants arriving on Lampedusa in 2011. Photo: Eva Barton.
Georges is paddling against the current. In the Europe of economic downturn, xenophobia has risen fastest where poverty has hit hardest. Greece’s far-right Golden Dawn party won parliamentary seats this year, implementing violence against migrants on a systematic level.
In his discussions with locals, Georges tries to turn the economic argument for xenophobia on its head: ‘I tell people that if Europe creates an organization for the proper management of migration it will benefit them economically. Most of them don’t care about saving migrants’ lives, but when I tell them it’s about saving billions of euros spent for no reason on a failed system, then they start to be interested.’
In 2004 the EU established a single agency, Frontex, to police its borders. The European Council and European Parliament are currently negotiating the creation of a satellite surveillance system, EUROSUR, which aims to reduce the number of migrant deaths in the Mediterranean.
Procedures for dealing with migrants once they have arrived remain in the hands of each member state. Many, including Britain and Italy, contract out the running of detention or holding centres to the private sector. Investigations by journalists in the south of Italy have alleged that the Mafia have infiltrated this system and are profiting from it.
Under the so-called ‘Dublin regulation’, it was believed migrants had to apply for asylum in the first EU state they passed through. However, the European Court of Justice ruled in December 2011 that Britain could not send an asylum-seeker back to Greece, because it could not guarantee he would not be subjected to ‘inhumane treatment’ in Greece’s overcrowded detention centres.
Georges Alexandre’s petition, calling for a common European initiative for the management of migrant centres across the EU, currently has around 600 signatures. To develop the project and gain wider support he plans to stay in Rome over the winter, before kayaking on next spring up the Italian coast and to Brussels via the river Rhone.