* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Michael* was rescued by the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) crew in the summer of our 2017 mission when he was attempting the Central Mediterranean crossing on an unseaworthy vessel. He was almost drowning, but our crew members managed to assist all the people travelling with him and bring them safely on board the Phoenix, a migrant rescue ship operated by MOAS.
As usual, the main priority after rescue activities are completed is to provide post-rescue care and treat medical emergencies as soon as possible. Soon after, we usually speak to our guests and find out more about their previous life, their background, the challenges experienced during their horrific journey, as well as their dreams for the future.
When we met Michael, he told us his story of discrimination and exclusion. He is 33 and comes from Mauritania, where he left his wife and two young children. Two years ago he fled the country in order to find a decent job and give a better future to his family. He is one of the many migrants who left their homeland to work in Libya, where he has stayed for one year and a half before being forced to attempt the sea crossing due to the widespread instability and violence in the country.
Discrimination is considered a major abuse against human rights.
Discrimination is a common phenomenon all over the world, despite being enshrined in Covenants, Agreements and Conventions as well as national legislations. It also belongs to the foundations of the rule of law together with the right to equality.
It can have many different forms: there is discrimination against indigenous people, minorities or people with disabilities, or it may be based on gender, religion, sexual orientation and so on.
In Mauritania discrimination is rooted within civil society and local communities, as highlighted by Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights at the end of his visit in the country last year. Professor Alston was clear in saying that, even if discrimination officially does not exist and the government denies all claims, it is actually the “most enduring vestige of slavery”. Discrimination has different forms, its main ones being the lack of ID cards for many adults and the language policy, which considers Arabic as the official language even if many people do not speak it.
Even if nobody knows the real extent of such problem due to the lack of official figures, a worrying number of adults do not have an ID card due to bureaucracy issues and the fee to pay to have it. This means that “Those without the document cannot vote, cannot attend school beyond the primary level, cannot qualify for many government benefits, and generally cannot own land”, said Alston. Basically, non-Arabic minorities are marginalized and have no chance to be empowered in order to become economically independent.
It is then no surprise if a father like Michael decides to leave his life behind in order to search for a better future, provide a quality education to his children to prevent them from experiencing the same suffering he has gone through. He hopes to arrive in Europe and never experience discrimination again in a continent that should grant him better chances than his native one.
Mauritania is hosting many refugees fleeing widespread violence in Northern Mali, as demonstrated by UNHCR data last July. This year alone, more than 2,000 Malians have arrived in the country, mainly in Mbera camp. Migration flows worsen a volatile situation marked by food insecurity, a high rate of malnutrition and epidemics. As for education, Mauritania joined the Global Partnership for Education in 2002, and the government has committed to improving and developing the school system. However, despite some positive achievements, there are still many weak points, such as poor quality education, low rate of people with access to secondary education, insufficient number of qualified teachers and little involvement of civil society.
I decided to be Michael’s voice and to bear witness to his experience in order to raise awareness, and find viable solutions in the long-run, so that fathers and mothers will not be forced to leave Mauritania. My wish is that effective solutions will be implemented to make people independent through the creation of development projects to empower the local population, and eradicate the current triggering factors of migration.
*the name has been changed to protect the identity
Regina Catrambone is MOAS’ Co-Founder and Director.