‘No stone should be left unturned in apprehending those responsible for the terrible deaths of 64 Ethiopian migrants in Mozambique,’ says Vusi Pikoli, senior advisor and board member of the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime (GI-TOC).

Yesterday (24 March, 2020), Mozambican immigration inspectors working on the country’s border with Malawi found the dead bodies of 64 Ethiopian migrants in a lorry container, alongside 14 survivors.

This ghastly tragedy is a grim reminder of the daily risks faced by significant and growing numbers of migrants using the services of human smugglers both in Africa and beyond, as the number of recent similar tragedies across Europe demonstrates.

‘It is sickening that human life can be so expendable in exchange for illicit profits,’ says Pikoli. ‘There is a political, legal and moral obligation on governments and law-enforcement agencies to act decisively on all human-smuggling cases. The families and loved ones of the deceased men must be traced. No stone should be left unturned in the investigation and prosecution of the criminal network responsible for this tragedy.’

‘This horrendous incident also speaks to the enormous double standards at play when tragedies like this occur in Africa,’ says GI-TOC Director for East and Southern Africa, Julian Rademeyer. ‘Similar incidents in Europe have sparked international headlines and outrage. When these tragedies occur in Africa, they go largely ignored and unreported. It is an absolute travesty. To prevent needless deaths like this, coordinated national, regional and international responses are called for to aid the vulnerable, and we need to explore policies to create safe pathways for labour migration.’

It is most likely that this incident constituted human smuggling, where networks facilitate the irregular cross-border movement of consenting migrants, rather than trafficking, where networks deceive and coerce victims. And, although shocking, it is not a one-off – the GI-TOC’s Organized Crime Index Africa 2019 has found that both human smuggling and trafficking are prevalent in almost every country in Africa.

The legal framework governing human smuggling in Mozambique appears to be weak, with the authorities reportedly issuing a prescribed US$30 (2 000 metical) fine for offences related to the facilitation of irregular migration; this is less than 10% of the 30 000 metical fee offered to the driver to transport the migrants. The risk/reward ratio is clear.

The migrants, all of whom were men, are believed to have suffocated while being smuggled across the increasingly popular southern route towards South Africa. Although press attention typically focuses on those moving towards Europe, the vast majority of African migrants move between and within countries on the continent. The international travel restrictions flowing from the COVID-19 pandemic may further swell this intra-continental movement.

The flows into Mozambique have been on the rise, attributable both to growing numbers moving along the southern route and to increased labour immigration drawn to the country’s burgeoning extractives industry. Ethiopians make up a significant number of those moving southwards, particularly since increasing instability in Libya has disrupted the northern route towards Europe.

Three years ago, the GI-TOC highlighted the growing use of refrigerated containers in global human-smuggling operations as cause for concern. Similarly, the GI-TOC stressed that the November 2019 death of 39 Vietnamese migrants in a truck in the United Kingdom was not an isolated incident, and urged policymakers to take action to stop migrants continuing to die in trucks.

In stark contrast to the global media responses to such tragedies when they occur in Europe, international press coverage of yesterday’s incident in Mozambique has been more muted. Although in part attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has dominated coverage, this also reflects global apathy towards such incidents when they occur in Africa.

This fatigue regarding African tragedy can also be tracked in responses to migrant fatalities resulting from mid-journey container abandonments by smugglers operating the northern route, particularly across the Sahel and North Africa. This needs to change.

For further information, please contact Claudio Landi: claudio.landi@globalinitiative.net

PhotoSurvivors from the container rest on the ground after they were found alive inside a truck with 64 dead, Tete province, Mozambique. (EPA-EFE)

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