As the Syrian refugee crisis continues, a host of other tragic immigration stories drag on throughout the Eastern Hemisphere. In many ways, the refugee crisis in Northern Africa may be worse than one playing out in Syria and environmental troubles are one reason why. Persisting for the last several years, a recent spike in refugees from Eritrea, Nigeria, Gambia, Somalia, Côte d'Ivoire and several neighboring countries has taken the nightmare to a new level. Greek photographer Aris Messinis has captured numerous images of the overloaded migrant boats in the Mediterranean Sea over the last several months. His photos have put faces on the catastrophic series of events.
While the Syrian emigration has taken place over dry land, the exodus from Africa has required passage across the Mediterranean. The journey, however, has not been made in sea-worthy vessels but in a collection of boats that often times really don't even deserve to be called boats. An October account in the New York Times described one wooden boat designed to hold perhaps 200 people carrying five times that number. More than three dozen dead bodies were found in the hold of another boat. Passengers were jammed into another vessel to the point that an additional two dozen died from asphyxiation. Laura Lanuza, from Spanish aid group Proactiva Open Arms, to describe the conditions to be "just like a slavery boat" we might have seen in the 19th century.
As if things were not bad enough for the refugees, survey work by the UN's International Organisation for Migration (IOM) shows that nearly three-quarters of migrants arriving in Europe by boat had been trafficked or exploited for profit by criminals at some point on their journey. Half were forced to work without pay, a notable portion of them being threatened with weapons. Kevin Hyland, the United Kingdom's independent anti-slavery commissioner, said that the research provides further evidence that "the migration crisis is being used by human trafficking networks to target and exploit the most vulnerable" and not just for the journey across the Mediterranean.
Much of this horrid state of affairs has been brought about by civil wars and the unstable political situations in the region. But environmental issues, the destruction or seizure of farm or grazing land and other battles over resources and land are often underlying causes. The stresses of climate change have magnified these struggles further. Those driven from their homeland for these reasons have become known as "environmental refugees." Most are from are from the Sahel region, just south of the Sahara Desert, and have traditionally relied on subsistence farming and herding. As the region becomes more stressed by temperature increases and more frequent drought, overgrazing exacerbates the already difficult situation. This has contributed to the spreading of the desert, or desertification, marked by the spread of the Sahara sands sixty miles into the Sahel.
Despite the heroic efforts of several European countries, especially Italy, the death toll for 2016 is approaching 4,000, surpassing last year's total before the month of October ended. The forces driving refugees from their home countries are many and intertwined but it's clear that building economic, political and environmental stability in the Sahel is the key to turning the tide.
Readers can check out Aris Messinis' poignant images of the African refugee crisis.