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Tragedy Off Lampedusa: How Poverty and Population Factors Sink the Future of Immigrants

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A ship carrying migrants arrives in Lampedusa in August 2007 by Sara Prestianni

Just before dawn on Thursday, October 3, 2013, a small boat carrying approximately 500 people sunk off the coast of Lampedusa, a small Sicilian island considered a gateway to Europe for immigrants. Described by Jim Yardley and Elisabetta Povoledo of The New York Times as a "rickety trawler overstuffed with African migrants fleeing war and poverty," the vessel capsized after a fire onboard--started intentionally to signal to land that the ship was nearing--caused a panic among the passengers.

As of the night of Wednesday, October 9--exactly one week after the accident--296 bodies have been reported found, and only 155 of those onboard are confirmed to have survived. Lillian Pizzi, a psychologist working with migrant families in Lampedusa, told The Times, "It is something that happens all too often. It has to be read politically. This is not an accident at sea. It has to be something else."

It certainly is. Year after year, thousands of migrants abandon their home countries to escape the poverty and unrest that plague them there. Some of the facts: This year alone, 30,000 have left behind civil war, brutal regimes and violence to Italy, including 7,500 Syrians, 7,500 Eritreans and 3,000 Somalians. This ship held immigrants from primarily the latter two countries, so we'll focus on them.

More stats? Twice as many migrants landed via ship in Italy and Malta during the first six months of 2013 alone as did during the same period in 2012. And as the number of migrants taking to the seas increases each year, so to does the number of disasters: 25,000 total have died in the Mediterranean Sea in accidents similar to this one, including 1,700 last year alone. That's a lot of people, and a lot of tragedy.

Suddenly, the cost of traveling to freedom is no longer just financial: in addition to paying thousands of dollars to Turkish, Egyptian and Libyan middlemen and smugglers, these poor asylum-seekers are paying in their lives as well.

So what's driving this? For one, rising numbers of extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa are catalyzing population change in Eritrea and Somalia. "Extreme poverty," recently redefined to living on less than $1.25 USD a day, is characterized by the UN Dept. of Economic and Social Affairs as "severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, shelter, education and information." As of 2005, 50.3% of the total sub-Saharan population lived below the $1.25/day poverty line. Between 1990 and 2005, the number of people living in extreme poverty grew by 100 million.

And so the side effects of these struggling economic conditions make life difficult for the populations of these countries. Since 1990, the gender parity ratio in secondary schools has fallen, the number of people living with HIV is increasing--and 5 million in the region don't have access to treatment--, and tuberculosis is on the rise despite declining almost everywhere else around the world.

And while infant and maternal mortality have stabilized somewhat, twice as many are still dying in sub-Saharan Africa as are in Southeast Asia, which has the next highest mortality rates. As unemployment rises, disease ravages the countryside, and resources lack, many impoverished immigrants, in a state of desperation, are driven to risk voyage by sea to a better life in Europe.

The nations that are home to these fleeing migrants are also lacking a demographic transition and dividend. For many nations in sub-Saharan Africa, the "demographic transition," or the movement from a pre-industrialized society with high fertility and mortality rates to an industrialized one with low fertility and mortality rates, has stalled. A successful demographic transition gives way to a "demographic dividend," or a window of opportunity for economic growth and human development.

However, rather than experiencing any kind of stabilization of fertility and mortality rates, the region has instead seen unprecedented and unbridled growth: the population has skyrocketed from 183 million in 1950 to 863 million in 2010--and projections put the population at 1.753 billion by 2050. Just as these nations have not yet seen lower fertility or mortality rates, their economies have not yet had the chance to graduate to industrial status.

Instead of experiencing a "first dividend" full of high production, high savings, decreased fertility, improvements in old-age mortality, and a more rapidly growing per capita income, these economies are left with more people dependent on the labor force than there are working in it. Thus, we're seeing in these nations 1) economic stagnation and 2) an inability to provide for their exploding populations. Until Eritrea and Somalia can slow their fertility and mortality rates, lower their dependency ratio and raise their national productivity, their citizens will continue to pursue futures elsewhere.

Lastly: In these African countries, "youth bulges," or when a large share of a nation's population is disproportionately composed of children and young adults, are facilitating social unrest. Currently, nearly 70% of the continent is under 30. Somalia and Eritrea have large young male populations that are in line with the trends in the larger region.

Africa's total youth population (defined as those age 15-24) is increasing faster than anywhere in the world. Predictably, there are consequences if a large group of young people can't find employment or earn satisfactory income. Sociologist Gunnar Heinsohn once argued that an excess in young adult males is inevitably responsible for war, terrorism and other forms of social unrest that are terrifying families into leaving their homelands.

In Eritrea, these "angry young men" both catalyze and react destructively to compulsory labor policies, arbitrary and tortuous detention, destruction of the private press and restrictions on religious activities. In Somalia, unrest comes in the form of suicide/car bombings, kidnappings and murders by the Al Shabab militant group (linked to Al Qaeda), rising rates of sexual violence, crime, and aggressive reactions to famine and poor education. These largely young, male populations become hotbeds for tension if their governments do not offer solutions to the problems they face.

In the end, I suppose we can only hope for stabilizing populations and better economic conditions that will eliminate the need for immigrants to take such drastic and high-risk measures to improve their quality of life.


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Lisa is a senior at the University of California, Berkeley, where she is currently studying Media Studies and Public Policy. She is currently a News & Production intern at KPIX-TV/CBS 5 News in San Francisco, and previously interned at the CBS News (more...)
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