Elhadj As Sy, secretar y general of the International Federation of Red Cross & Red Crescent Societies
Every week, I receive desperate messages from my continent as families and friends seek news of their loved ones who set out on a journey to Europe and have not been heard from since. “Sir, you are my last resort. Please help find my brother, hopefully alive. His wife doesn’t know if she should continue to wait or start to mourn,” says a Whatsapp message on my phone. Others implore me to my face. “Uncle, please don’t leave us here. Take us with you, in the name of God,” called a handsome young man in my mother tongue, Wolof, as he disembarked from the Aquarius rescue ship in Valencia, in June. “Seventy-five friends died during our odyssey, and we had to throw their bodies into the ocean. How can I face their parents again? How can I be proud to be a survivor?” said a young Senegalese man to me, in a long monologue broken by sobs.
Why are they writing to me and pleading with me? Perhaps because I am African, and maybe because I look like their father or their uncle. But surely because they believe I might be able to help, and because there are too few others to turn to. Most of the time though, I’m afraid there is little I can do. The International Organization for Migration estimates that this year, by 16 September, more than 1,720 migrants had perished – or gone ‘miss-
We never see flags at half-mast in the homelands of those who have died
ing ’ – in the Mediterranean. The figure for the whole of last year was 2,575. The vast majority of these people – our brothers and sisters, sons and daughters – are from Africa, and mostly from my home region of West Africa. We see these figures in glossy humanitarian publications. Occasionally we also see faceless photos of the dead in newspapers – though usually
only when the numbers suddenly jump – and the papers are quickly thrown away. But we never see official flags flown at half-mast in the homelands of those who have died. We rarely see the tears of the mothers and fathers of these young men and women, for they are shed far away, in the despair of quiet corners. And the words of outrage, of condemnation, of shame that should be
Our governments should own – not disown – their own citizens
shouted out loud by the leaders in these victims’ homelands are also rarely heard – for reasons I really do not understand. People move and will continue to move in search of new lives, as well as, all too often, in search of sanctuary. No matter the reason for their moves, this quest should never cost lives. And we West Africans cannot expect the rest of the world to know about and care and respond to these tragedies, if we ourselves do not. It is time for us West Africans – our governments, our communities, our peoples – to ask ourselves some very serious questions.
Why, particularly in places that are not subject to conflict or serious violence, do so many young people feel that their only future lies elsewhere? Why, having faced untold hardship and suffering during their journeys, are those who change their minds and want to return to their homelands not supported to have a dignified return? And why is home so often not a welcoming place? Our governments should do all they can to make sure that our people have access to accurate and trustworthy information so that the decision to migrate is an informed one. No one should claim ignorance of the harsh realities of migration. Our governments should provide better consular services to migrants in countries of transit and destination. That means giving life-saving assistance, information on legal means of migration, and repatriation and reintegration support for those who want or need it. And our governments should bring back the bodies of those who die on the migration journey. They should own – not disown – their own citizens. These are ver y small requests in the face of unimaginable suffering. But they are steps that will demonstrate that our countries are not indifferent to the plight of our people. Africans cannot leave this problem to others. Yes, world leaders – including our own – discussed these issues at the UN General Assembly in September. And yes, the world will adopt a Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration in December. But a major part of this problem belongs to Africa and will need to be solved in Africa. Many of our problems – and many of their solutions – lie at home. Let’s stop the indifference and protect humanity.