Migrants drowning in the Mediterranean Sea? Whose problem is it?

November 12, 2004: Migrants try to climb aboard a Spanish civil guard vessel after their makeshift boat capsized during a rescue operation at sea off the coast of Fuerteventura. Of the 36 in the boat, 29 were rescued (Juan Medina/ Reuters)

November 12, 2004: Migrants try to climb aboard a Spanish civil guard vessel after their makeshift boat capsized during a rescue operation at sea off the coast of Fuerteventura. Of the 36 in the boat, 29 were rescued (Juan Medina/ Reuters)

Imagine if you will that you live in a gated community within which are seven homes each with its unique culture, environment and endowments. And just like any other community, there are regulations that govern its residents. These range from how the homes are to do business with each other, visit each other, or even change homes. All has been well in this community until children from one home became too frequent visitors in another.  While ordinarily visits in this gated community are relatively safe, lately they have been anything but.

Of course by now, dear reader, you are aware that this gated community is none other than earth and the two homes referred to herein are Africa and Europe.  The question that looms over these two homes is ‘whose problem is it’?


So far she has acted in a manner suggesting it is hers. At one time, in an effort to reduce the number of migrants making the perilous journey through the Mediterranean Sea into Europe, she withdrew her Search and Rescue operations. This was unfortunately informed by a perception that the operation acted as a pull factor for the migrants. The result was of course the unprecedented deaths of over 1,200 migrants in two separate disasters in the month of April alone. Since then, the European Union has resumed search and rescue operations.

October 5, 2013: Coffins are laid out in a hangar at Lampedusa airport after a boat packed with migrants sank, killing more than 360 people(Alberto Pizzoli/AFP)

October 5, 2013: Coffins are laid out in a hangar at Lampedusa airport after a boat packed with migrants sank, killing more than 360 people(Alberto Pizzoli/AFP)

Furthermore, beginning next month, the EU will conduct search and destroy operations against the boat smugglers in Libyan waters. However there are some who think this is an inefficient way of dealing with the problem. A more robust way would be tracking the money made through trafficking, possibly into tax havens in Europe and freezing such accounts.

Adoption of a quota system in resettling the migrants among its member countries has also been considered. As things stand now, out of the twenty two members countries of the EU, only six bear the heaviest burden of immigrants.

Other possible avenues of action have also been floated. It has been suggested (rather obviously) that a stable Libya would be a deterrent to the lucrative trade of human smuggling. However, a stable Libya driven by western influence might be a long shot. This is because it was the West that encouraged the toppling of Muamar Gaddafi thus leaving a leadership vacuum in Libya.

Anti-Gaddafi forces place tanks in position in Om El Khanfousa, east of Sirte, after liberating the area from Gaddafi's forces Photo: REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori

Anti-Gaddafi forces place tanks in position in Om El Khanfousa, east of Sirte, after liberating the area from Gaddafi’s forces Photo: REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori

It has also been suggested that applications for asylum be processed south of the Mediterranean Sea as opposed to inside Europe as is the case currently. In addition, successful applicants will be hosted by North African countries with the support of the EU while rejected economic refugees will be sent back to their home countries.

Throughout these deliberations, the underlying attitude of Europe towards immigrants has come to the surface. Consider a few presented herein.

Africa’s demographic time bomb is its own affair. If they do not have the rule of law, good governance and birth control why should we, who do, have to suffer the consequences? We know that it is an invasion exploiting our gullibility with their ‘rights’. We know that millions will come. We know what it will do to our society. Time to put up the draw bridge. Our ancestors did not fight for our freedoms for this moral weakness because we don’t have the guts to stand up for ourselves as that may be seen as racist to say no to black people due to our pathetic white guilt. I don’t know about future generations as they’ll probably be African not European.’ Reader commenting in The Guardian Newspaper (of course this opinion is not representative of the newspaper)

NO, I don’t care. Show me pictures of coffins, show me bodies floating in water, play violins and show me skinny people looking sad. I still don’t care… Make no mistake, these migrants are like cockroaches. They might look a bit “Bob Geldof’s Ethiopia circa 1984”, but they are built to survive a nuclear bomb. They are survivors. It’s time to get Australian. Bring on the gunships, force migrants back to their shores and burn the boats.’ Celebrity Columnist Katie Hopkins writing for The Sun newspaper.

Nonetheless despite such anti-African sentiments, Europe has taken decisive steps to solve its immigration problem. Unfortunately, Africa has yet to wake up to its emigration problem.


In Africa, it seems that migrants can only find a voice through civil society groups and journalists.

The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights which met in Banjul in early May, said in a statement that it “deplores the silence of African countries” on migrant deaths, calling on the African Union “to end this scourge, and respond to the plight of these people“.

The silence of African leaders faced with the drama of illegal immigration, with its toll of deaths, is disturbing,” said Amsatou Sow Sidibe, an adviser to Senegalese President Macky Sall.

Illegal emigration is emptying the continent and the African countries of the means to promote their development,” she told AFP, blaming “widespread poverty and massive unemployment of youth attracted to horizons where they hope, often wrongly, to find the conditions for a more tolerable life“.

The organisation further voiced concern that the deteriorating socio-economic, political and security situation in some countries was “pushing these people to embark on the migratory adventure, risking their lives“.

Perhaps the only thing response we have heard from the African Union is a passing statement from its chairperson during a meet with the EU on 22 nd April this year.

“If people don’t have livelihoods at all, they are not going to sit and die of hunger, they are going to look for greener pastures,” Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma told reporters in Brussels.

 “We don’t have an instant solution but we are going to be looking at and taking steps but we can’t say those steps will solve this thing tomorrow,” she added.

Unfortunately, I cannot recall of any sitting president who has addressed the problem directly except Gambian President Yahya Jammeh. However, his comments add salt to an already open and festering wound.

 Gambian President Yahya Jammeh Photo: Reuters

Gambian President Yahya Jammeh  Photo: Reuters

He acknowledged in an address on state-run television in mid-May that “there were many funerals in the country a few weeks ago because a lot of people died in the Mediterranean”.

But he blamed parents who pay for their children to embark on the risky voyage, suggesting they are not “true Muslims”.

“If these people are true Muslims and really believe in what they are saying, then they should equally believe that their sons and daughters could have made it at home if they were ready to invest and work,” Jammeh said.

July 1, 2008: A man offer prayers of thanks after arriving at a beach on Spain's Canary island of Gran Canaria(Borja Suarez/Reuters)

July 1, 2008: A man offer prayers of thanks after arriving at a beach on Spain’s Canary island of Gran Canaria(Borja Suarez/Reuters)

Consider the audience to whom President Jammeh directed his message will you?  A people subjected to human rights abuses, extra-judicial killings, torture and its journalists constantly muzzled; a people who know poverty first hand- a third of them survive on $1.25 or less a day. Yes, according to president Jammeh, it is their fault that their children perished in the Mediterranean Sea.

So the question still stands, whose problem is it?

My take is this is a European problem as much as it is an African problem. And to solve it, Europe needs to swallow its pride and overcome its fear of the other and Africa needs to gather what little dignity it has left,  recognise that those seeking refuge in Europe are not the scum of the earth but a product of poor African governance.  It is time Africa hearkened to the cries of her perishing young.



When men eat grass

A while ago a pastor in South Africa caused a stir when he coerced his congregants to eat grass in the name of God. I found it particularly hard to be sympathetic to the faithful probably because I thought they should know better. However, when news of Syrians trapped in Damascus, with no food to eat or water to drink, resorted to gnawing grass, my heart ached. This was a cruel reminder as to why Amartya Sen regarded dignity as a pivotal component of hunger alleviation. It was also a reminder of the nexus between conflict and hunger. The jury is still out as to whether a cause-effect relationship exists between the two. Nonetheless, it does not require statistical rigour to note the diabolical vicious association between conflict and hunger.

In 1999, Africa was the continent in which major armed conflicts took place. It still is I presume. Most of these conflicts were protracted accompanied by complex humanitarian emergencies.

Continent Major Conflict Minor Conflict
Europe Russia(Chechnya)


Russia (Dagestan)
Middle East West Bank and Gaza


Asia Burma



Philippines(New people’s army)

Sri Lanka



Philippines (Mindanao)

Africa Algeria


Congo, republic of

Congo, Democratic Republic of







Sierra Leone



Ethiopia (Ogaden; Oromiya; Somali )

South America Colombia



Source: Wallensteen & Sollenberg (2000)

Fifteen years later little has changed. The Central African Republic has recently been in the spotlight because of religious militias taking on each other. Some of the stories that emanated from C.A.R shocked even the stoniest amongst us. A few countries away, South Sudan was at it again. Therein, the conflict took an ethnic turn into what a leading media house in Kenya referred to as a silent massacre. Currently, close to 2.5 million people are in need of food assistance as markets have failed and the supply channels used to deliver food to the villages have been disrupted. The UN agency, WFP, has resorted to airdrops to deliver food. The conflicts are also felt in North-East Nigeria where Boko-Haram has been engaging the government in Guerrilla warfare. The most vulnerable group are school going children. The last time I checked 190 school girls had been abducted by the extremists.

I can go on and on but somewhere in Syria, men are eating grass because a regime which many perceive has overstayed its welcome, feels it has the right to determine who eats and who does not-literally. Now, I can furnish you with figures that show discrepancy between food production during times of peace and times of war; I can tell you that prior to 1994, a drastic fall in global prices of coffee reduced the purchasing power of rural Rwandese and consequently their living conditions, they, living in quiet desperation, found it easy to turn against each other when appealed to do so; I can remind you that it was the failure of Emperor Haile Selassie to respond to food shortages in Ethiopia that led to his overthrow. However, I feel we should end on a moral note.

In hunger and conflict, what once was abominable becomes the norm. Eyebrows are no longer raised when a woman and a man wielding a gun go behind a bush and later, the woman is spotted with a bag of flour. Jaws no longer drop when a man rips off flesh from a fresh human corpse using his teeth. Mothers do not utter a sound when their children are recruited into the army. Girls no longer have the strength to resist the soldiers’ forceful advances. These and other unutterable horrors of war are not new to us. Every day, we are fed with news of such from across the world. Some are so near us geographically, yet, far, emotionally. We have become so accustomed to the sounds of drones, blasts, screams, corpses on our TV screens that we forget that they too are human. We have become deaf to the tolling of the bell. We have forgotten that the death of another diminishes us. We have forgotten that it is a thin line between war and peace and while few strive to see that this line is not crossed, the indifference of most will inevitably lead to its crossing time and time again.


2013: Year in Review

It is that time of the year when we must take stock of the year passed and measure our hopes for the New Year. 2013 was without a doubt a year of pivotal events, especially in my homeland Kenya. We had a peaceful general election in March- the first under the new constitution. We celebrated 50 years of independence hence joining a throng of other African nations that have achieved the same in the recent past. However, in spite of these positive developments, Kenya and other African nations are still bedevilled by hunger, corruption, disease, ill-governance, conflict and poverty.  This is reflected in the global reports of 2013. I will elaborate on some that focus on hunger.

The Global Hunger Index (GHI) 2013

The GHI measures and tracks hunger globally and by region and country. It is computed by the international Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) and employs three main indicators i.e. undernourishment, child underweight and child mortality. In 2013, the worst performing regions were South Asia and Africa South of the Sahara.  South Asia had the highest GHI score and this was attributed to social inequality and the low nutritional, educational, and social status of women.

The Sahel region was noted to be prone to hunger due to a number of factors. These included sporadic rainfall, locust infestation, crop shortages, and high and volatile food prices. These affected the food and nutrition security of the region negatively. Furthermore, conflict in countries such as Mali and Northern Nigeria exacerbated the situation. However, despite this grim picture, Ghana stood tall as it was among the top ten best performers in terms of improving her GHI score since 1990. It goes without saying that Ghana is one of the most stable democracies in Africa. Studies have proved there is a very strong positive association between democracy and food and nutrition security. Perhaps this is why Ghana attracts an even rosier review in The State of Food Insecurity in the world, 2013. However, I am anticipating. We will come to that later.

Some countries exhibited significant increases in their GHI scores, the worst performers, all of them in Africa, are Burundi, Comoros and Eritrea. The report attributes increased hunger in Burundi and Comoros since 1990 to prolonged conflict and political instability.

The following are excerpts of what the report says of some African countries:

  • The three countries with extremely alarming 2013 GHI scores—Burundi, Comoros, and Eritrea— are in Africa south of the Sahara.
  • Burundi, Comoros, and Eritrea currently have the highest proportion of undernourished people—more than 60 percent of the population
  • The Democratic Republic of Congo, with a population of more than 60 million, still appears as a grey area on the map because reliable data on undernourishment are lacking and the level of hunger cannot be assessed- High-quality data for the Democratic Republic of Congo, as for other likely hunger hot spots such as (Afghanistan) and Somalia, are badly needed.
  • Mali, Sierra Leone, and Somalia have the highest under-five mortality rate, ranging from approximately 18 to about 19 %.
  • The HIV and AIDS epidemic, along with high income inequality, has severely undermined food security in Swaziland despite growth in national income. Because of drought, more than one-quarter of the population depended on emergency food aid in 2006–2007, and the country’s GDP per capita declined between 2007 and 2010. High unemployment, overgrazing, soil depletion, and the risk of future droughts and floods pose persistent challenges.


The State of Food Insecurity in the World; the multiple dimensions of food security, 2013

This annual report communicates progress made towards achieving the 2001 Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on Hunger i.e. halve the proportion of hungry people in the total population and the even more ambitious 1996 World Food Summit(WFS) goal on hunger i.e. halve the number of hungry people. It should be noted that both goals have 1990 as the starting year and 2015 as the target year. However, the WFS goal is harder to achieve because of the high rates of population growth in many hunger-affected countries. The report estimated that to meet the WFS target, the number of hungry people in developing regions would have to be reduced to 498 million by 2015, a goal that is out of reach at the global level.

In 2011-2013, 842 million people i.e. 12 % of the total world’s population were unable to meet their dietary requirements. This means that one in eight people were likely to have suffered from chronic hunger.

Africa remained the region with the highest prevalence of undernourishment (on in four people) within which the sub-Saharan region had the highest (24.8%) prevalence of undernourishment.  The report concludes that Africa is not on track to achieve the MDG hunger target. Nonetheless, Ghana goes against the grain. It had met its 2015 MDG hunger target by 2000–02. By 2011-2013, less than 5 % of its population were undernourished. It was also well on track to meet its MDG poverty target before 2015. This impressive record in a region not known to post such is attributed to a robust economic growth (its GDP grew by an average of 4.5% a year since 1983 and by an impressive 14 % in 2011), market reforms and favourable terms of trade and investment climate. However, all this would not be possible without the peace and political stability that Ghana enjoys. In fact, I dare say, this is the impetus that fuelled Ghana to meeting the MDG hunger target by 2000-02.

In stark contrast to Ghana, Uganda records a dismal performance on its progress to meet the MDG hunger target. Firstly, the prevalence of undernourishment has been increasing since the early 2000. This is attributed to discordance between food production and population growth. Uganda has an annual population growth of 3.2%, one of the highest in the world. This rate combined with a declining food production per capita, unequal distribution and access to food have rendered one third of Uganda’s population to be chronically undernourished.


African countries performance in regard to ending hunger leaves a lot to be desired. While the continent boasts of having the largest tracts of unused arable land, it also holds the unenviable title of the continent with the highest number of hungry people. Much has been said of this discrepancy and quite a number of recommendations have been suggested. Despite of all these efforts, the changes over the years do not merit the investment made into bringing about those changes. As we measure the hopes that we have for the New Year, it is my sincere hope that we see much more political commitments made towards ending hunger globally and especially in Africa. It is also my sincere desire that we witness significant changes in the indicators of hunger in the foreseeable future. Perhaps approaching the year 2015, measuring of progress made towards MDGs and post-2015 development agenda will fuel efforts towards eliminating hunger. Meanwhile, remarks made by José Graziano da Silva (FAO Director-General), Kanayo F. Nwanze( IFAD President) and Ertharin Cousin (WFP Executive Director) in the foreword to The State of Food Insecurity in the world, 2013 ring ever so true…

“Ultimately, political stability, effective governance and, most importantly, uninterrupted long- term commitments to mainstreaming food security and nutrition in policies and programmes are key to the reduction of hunger and malnutrition”

NB: A more concise review of 2013 can be found at http://www.hunger-undernutrition.org/blog/2013/12/happy-new-year-a-look-back-at-2013.html?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+Hunger-undernutritionBlog+%28Hunger-Undernutrition+Blog%29

Related articles