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Simon Parke: Triumph of hope

25 May 2011

NOT everyone wants to swim in the Mediterranean this summer; par­ticu­larly those travelling from Tripoli to the small Italian island of Lampedusa.

Aid officials say that it is im­possible to tell how many have died on this watery rat-run for migrants from North Africa who are hoping for a new life in Europe. But it is clear that the deaths at sea are in the hundreds, and a report in The Guar­dian suggests that NATO forces are turning a determinedly blind eye to craft escaping the uncertain “Arab spring”.

The newspaper reports that a boat carrying 72 passengers, including women and children, ran into trouble after leaving Tripoli. Despite alarms being raised with the Italian coastguard, no rescue effort was attempted. All but 11 of the 72 died from thirst and hunger after their vessel was left to drift for 16 days. One of the survivors said: “By the final days, we didn’t know ourselves. . . . everyone was either praying or dying.”

Mohamed Munadi is one of the lucky ones, in a relative way. He made it to the Italian town of Oria, but re­members his voyage: “To be lost there where the water is black, it’s worse than the desert.” And he should know, because he comes from the Tunisian Sahara. “You get scared, and start to imagine how you will die.” And all the time, Mr Munadi kept asking himself: “Mohamed, you did all this for Europe? All this for a job?”

Lampedusa has already received more than 30,000 refugees this year. And European governments are start­ing to show concern. Nicolas Sar­kozy and Silvio Berlusconi have gladly put aside their various do-mes­tic difficulties to speak up for the partial return of national border-controls in Europe, given these “ex­ceptional circumstances”.

Some European politicians are going further, and demanding a for­tification of the continent’s external frontiers as well as curbs on freedom of travel within it. Mr Munadi hears rumours of the panic. “I haven’t seen a television for two months,” he says, “but we hear about the politics, the meetings, and the deals. It’s strange that control over your life is in the hands of people you don’t know — people you will never meet. Only they know what will happen. Our job is to wait.”

Every migrant has a dream, a vision of his or her New Jerusalem, and Mr Munadi is no different. “Sometimes when I see the news, all the catastrophes and wars in this world, the revolutions and natural disasters, and I see people coming from Libya to Tunisia, Haiti to Canada, Serbia to Italy, all that makes me think that soon there will be no borders in this world.”

And then he takes us, misty-eyed, to the gates of Eden. “It will be a miracle,” he says, “but it will happen. We will go back to the first moments of humans on this earth, and move free.”

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