opinion
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Limbo

For the survivors of last week's wreck off Lampedusa, as for the others who have managed to reach land, another nightmare is awaiting

Barça ou barzakh! (Barcelona or limbo!) All Senegal knows this motto, chanted by those who set out on the perilous journey to Europe, first overland and then in boats that can seldom be said to be seaworthy, putting their lives on the line. A voyage to Europe or to death. The death statistics, classified by cause, say it all about the risks and hardships: death by hunger, cold, asphyxia, intoxication, anti-personnel mines, murder and, mainly, drowning. For every death, hundreds more are afflicted not just by the fear thereof, but by another list: robbery, rape and the permanent physical after-effects of forced prostitution.

But for the survivors of last week's wreck off Lampedusa, as for the others who have managed to reach land, there awaits another nightmare: an interminable succession of hidden limbos, in which thousands of people are trapped for years. For many it is repatriation, forced or voluntary. But often repatriation is a euphemism for deportation to "countries of transit" such as Morocco, Libya and Tunisia, whose governments have no means or intention of returning them to their lands of origin. Another limbo awaits them, left to their own devices in the hostile streets of North African cities or, in the worst cases, in a Saharan no man's land, at the mercy of anti-personnel mines, bands of smugglers, or just the desert itself.

For many, arrest is the first step of entry into Europe

For many, arrest is the first step of entry into Europe. Conditions are particularly deplorable in the southern countries, which systematically disregard EU and international norms, and obstruct or simply block access by journalists and human rights organizations. The most notorious case is that of Greece, where thousands of immigrants are crowded into utterly inadequate centers, repatriation being impossible. But Greece is not alone. The Netherlands, like Greece, is said to re-arrest people released from internment centers when the 18-month legal limit of detention is over. We are talking, remember, about people who have committed no crime. And not just adults: minors and whole families are trapped in the system, where no attention is paid to their rights and needs. Detention camps, back rooms in intercontinental airports, even prisons, constitute this other limbo where thousands of people spend days, months or years.

Nor does escape from detention and repatriation mean the end of your troubles. Apart from police pressure, the incessant pressure from xenophobic politicians such as Le Pen, Haider, Blocher and Bossi aims at making every citizen a cop on the lookout for foreign-looking people, fomenting a climate ripe for informants. The Lampedusa tragedy highlighted Italy's Bossi-Fini law, which punishes anyone who helps illegal immigrants (for example, rescuing them at sea and not turning them over to the authorities), but this is far from being the only or most extreme case. In Germany, health services attending to illegal immigrants have an obligation to report them. With no right to work legally, living in fear not only of the police, but also of every public service and every neighbor, they exist in another limbo in which everything hangs by a thread.

The frontiers of Europe are bleeding. The tragedies have to amount to hundreds of dead before they make headlines. A mere couple of dozen drowned bodies on the island of Lesbos, in the Strait of Gibraltar, on the coast of Libya or on the Atlantic beaches of the Canary Islands are relegated to the local pages. Awaiting the survivors is another succession of limbos, in which time goes by at a different speed. These spaces without rights are corroding the fundamental principles of European democracies: the rule of law, of course, but also the principle of solidarity and compassion among people, the humanist principle without which the whole structure of democracy is but a fragile, hollow shell.

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