African Refugees Fleeing War and Economic Strife on the Rise

Story Transcript

SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Last week Proactivia Open Arms, Doctors Without Borders, and the Italian Coast Guard rescued nearly 7,000 refugees off the coast of Libya. Most of them came from Somalia and Eritrea via war-torn Libya. According to some reports over 3,000 people have already died in the Mediterranean this year. This represents a 50% increase in deaths relative to last year. In addition, UNICEF reports that out of every 200 children in the world, one is a refugee.

Joining us now to discuss the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean is Gerard Canals. He’s a coordinator with Proactiva Open Arms. Thank you so much for joining us, Gerard.

GERARD CANALS: Hello, you’re welcome.

PERIES: So Gerard, so far this year over 100,000 refugees have safely crossed over to Italy, partly of course due to your organization’s efforts out at sea. Tell us what encountered at sea last week during this operation where a flight of about 7,000 refugees tried to cross over to Italy.

CANALS: Yes, well, that day we had a call at around 5 am from the Italian MRCC. So they said they have a target very near to our position so we started the search of this boat and after few minutes we found it. It was a very, very big boat with over 750 people on it. It’s the second largest boat we have ever experienced after the one with over 1,000 people. Usually they’re not so big and when we find this kind of boat it’s very dangerous because they are very unstable. So when you start moving people, trying to transfer them to other boats, it’s very dangerous. That was only the first case. After that we have other 4 wooden boats, smaller. I think 18-20 other boats. This was only in our area. I think that day the rescue happened in two different areas. In ours it was over 4,000 migrant rescue.

PERIES: And the people that you helped obviously they were escorted to land. So where are they now and who’s taking care of them?

CANALS: Well when we transfer to bigger vessel that was able to make the transport. So they usually bring them to some point in Italy, and usually this point is in Sicily. In Sicily, the have the hotspots from Frontex. So when they disembark there, they check their nationalities, they check their identities, so from that moment–so depending on who is coming and where they are from, they have to take one way or another. Then after that we don’t really know what is happening with them.

PERIES: Do you know of any cases where people are being returned back to Libya?

CANALS: No, I have nothing about this. I haven’t heard about this. I know that when the Libyan coast guard, they pick the people in the water up, they bring back to Libya. But once they have left the territorial waters, they are rescued, they all go to Italy.

PERIES: It appears that after the Turkey-EU deal the routes of passages has changed for refugees, causing more and more to come from Libya to Italy instead of going to Greece. What kind of stories did you hear from people about that?

CANALS: Well actually the flow is not the same gang of people. So the flow in the center [inaud.] is happening not only this year, it happened already last year and before that. We already had different missions happening in this area. So from the deal we were expecting the flow from Turkey to Greece to move somewhere else like Albania for example, crossing to Italy. But it didn’t happen. We knew from 4 boats that they didn’t. That they crossed but after that nothing else. So the flow from the [centerment] is more from African people. We have found some boats with Syrians but most common is African people there.

PERIES: And this is clearly a serious problem. What do you believe are some of the solutions of what’s going on?

CANALS: Well of course the rescue activity is not a solution at all. It’s just to fix something that is happening and have to be fixed. So we go there and try to save their lives and from that moment they get to Europe. Then after that they have to take it out there or whatever happens. But the solution of course is in the country of origin.

So when they leave their country, they take the risk of crossing the dessert and put themselves in this kind of boats and go to the sea it’s because they are not able to have a life in their own country. Otherwise there is no way they could put themselves in danger. So the solution comes from them. You have to try to find a way to make the life easier and better in their own country so they don’t have to leave.

PERIES: There are certain legal implications to whether you call these refugees, refugees or migrants. Your organization has clearly decided to call them refugees, whether they’re economic refugees or refugees fleeing war tones. Tell us about the significance of that difference and why your organization has decided to call them refugees.

CANALS: Well look, for me personally I prefer to call them people. So the difference that they make when you call them refugees is that they are fleeing from war. So, but migrants are more for economical reasons. But in the end it’s the same thing. You are leaving your country and you are putting your life in danger it’s because you really feel the need to do it. Otherwise you don’t want to put your life in danger like this. So yeah, we call them refugees, but personally I prefer to call them people because this is what they are. And it’s happened before in our country in Spain that our own people have to leave, so now we have our turn to give something back you know.

PERIES: And Gerard has the situation calmed down at all? Are the number of refugees coming–are there still refugees coming across?

CANALS: Do you mean in the [inaud.] or in Greece?

PERIES: I meant from Libya to Italy.

CANALS: Yes, yes, they are still crossing. The numbers depend on the day. Depends on the weather condition. They change a lot. Normally we have like 1,000 to 2,000 rescues in a day but as you mentioned before, one day we have almost 7,000 cases in one day. This is actually the record if you record it like this. But a few weeks before that we had the same record again. Over 4,500. So in one year we did twice the maximum number in this area in the whole history.

PERIES: All right, Gerard, I thank you so much for the very important work you’re doing and all the best to you.

CANALS: Thank you very much.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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