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Legal, financial perils don’t end for African migrants after they reach Europe

October 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The shipwreck and subsequent death of hundreds of African migrants off the Italian island Lampedusa has captured global attention. But this tragedy is not a one-time occurrence. Jeff Crisp of Refugees International joins Ray Suarez to discuss the lengths migrants go to make it to Europe and the tensions it causes within the EU.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ray Suarez takes the story from there.

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the perilous journey these migrants undertake, I’m joined by Jeff Crisp. He spent seven years at the U.N. refugee agency and is now the senior director for policy and advocacy at Refugees International.

Jeff Crisp, isn’t this just the most recent of these tragedies? Isn’t this a problem of long duration?

 JEFF CRISP, Refugees International: Well, this tragedy has certainly gained more international attention than many other previous tragedies of its type.

And I think that’s partly because of the sheer numbers of people involved. As you film has just said, possibly 300 people may have lost their lives. And, secondly, because there seems to be a large number of women and children on the boat, and I think this, again, has been one of the reasons why it’s attracted a lot of attention.

We have seen these kind of movements in the past, but they tended to be younger men. Now we’re having a new demographic in terms of this movement across the Mediterranean. And I think also the fact that the pope has come out so strongly on this issue has attracted a great deal of attention.

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But, as you’re suggesting, I think, this is certainly not a new phenomenon. It’s been going on for at least 20 years across the Mediterranean, and according to some estimates at least 20,000 people have lost their lives during that time. Now, of course, some people do manage to make the journey successfully.

And, again, according to one estimate, in 2012, around 15,000 people did successfully cross the Mediterranean and make their way to Southern Europe.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, in this case, both the living and the dead were many Eritreans from Africa’s east coast. But these people heading in from Morocco, from Libya, from Tunisia, are they from all over the continent?

JEFF CRISP: Pretty much so, coming from all over sub-Saharan Africa.

And one has to take account of the fact that before they even get to the Mediterranean, many of these people have undertaken incredibly grueling and arduous and difficult journeys. Just imagine, for example, traveling all the way over land from Somalia and Sudan and Eritrea to Libya and then having to confront the possibility of the journey across the ocean.

So these people are in extremely difficult circumstances by the time they have arrived in Northern Africa, and that of course is only a transit point on their journey.

RAY SUAREZ: In many cases, they have borrowed money or sold everything they had to have made the journey. It must be very hard to turn back if you realize it’s a bad idea.

JEFF CRISP: Well, I think it’s one of the most interesting things about this phenomenon is how do people actually make these long journeys. In seems that in many cases, families and communities in the country of origin pool their money together, sell their goods in order to sponsor one person from the family or the community to make their way.

Also, there are very large diaspora communities now living throughout Western Europe. And it seems to be the case that these diaspora communities are sending money back to the countries of origin and that this money is used to finance the journey.

And these journeys are not cheap because they’re organized by human smugglers, and human smugglers are in this business to make a profit.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, you have mentioned that thousands do successfully cross into Europe. Where do they end up and what do they end up doing?

JEFF CRISP: Well, very, very few of them end up with any kind of legal status. Some of them will apply for refugee status. In some cases, they may be successful in getting refugee status and allowed to remain in the country.

But the majority will not be recognized as refugees. Many of them will simply go underground and have to live in the shadows of life, working in the informal economy, often working within the communities of other people who have already left those countries and taken up residence in Europe.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Europe has been undergoing terrible economic turmoil in the last several years. Is there less of a welcome for these refugees now, and is it a political controversy, the number that are making…

(CROSSTALK)

JEFF CRISP: Well, it’s certainly a political controversy, and there’s certainly been a movement in many Western European countries where right-wing organizations are taking quite a hard line against the arrival of irregular or, as they would call them, illegal immigrants.

And I think there is an interesting debate going on about this kind of migratory movement. Some people would see it in very positive terms, the fact that people are making the best of their lives, they’re trying to improve their situation, that they’re filling jobs that nationals often refuse to take, so they are making a contribution to the economy. And, of course, they’re consumers. They actually buy goods in the economy and contribute in that way.

But, at the same time, there are many people who would argue that these people are arriving in an illegal manner, they don’t have the right to take up residence in these countries, and that they’re placing a great deal of strain on housing, on education, and health services. So there’s a very lively debate going on within Europe about the arrival of these kinds of migrants.

RAY SUAREZ: We saw briefly the Italian minister of the interior. He said to the parliament: “Europe must realize it’s not an Italian drama, but a European one. Lampedusa must become the border of Europe, not Italy.”

Has Italy been getting help from any E.U. institutions? 

JEFF CRISP: Well, certainly not as much help as Italy would like to have.

And this has been a very constant phenomena of the recent years, that when refugees or asylum seekers or migrants go to one country, other countries in the European Union are kind of generally not that interested in helping out another country. And so there’s been a lot of competition, even tension between countries.

For example, a couple of years ago, when large numbers of Tunisians during the Arab spring crossed over into Italy, they tried to get into France.  France crossed the border and said, you’re not coming into France.

So this is actually an issue which is stirring up quite a lot of tension between countries within the European Union.

RAY SUAREZ: One of the largest single transit points was from Morocco into Spain in earlier years, but has that been shut down?

JEFF CRISP: As far as we can tell, it’s been shut down. As you know, it’s a heavily fortified frontier, very high fences, regularly patrolled by the military.

The number of people seeking to cross that border appears to have subsided considerably. The new hot spot in terms of this migration is Libya. And I think that’s because, during the Gadhafi period, there were actually agreements between Gadhafi and the Italian government to try and stop this kind of movement taking place.

But with the kind of problems that Libya is now experiencing, it’s been very easy for these human smugglers to ply their trade in this country because of the level of disruptions that’s taken place there.

RAY SUAREZ: Jeff Crisp from Refugees International, thanks for joining us.

JEFF CRISP: Thank you very much.