Why They Keep Coming. Not Even Death Deters Europe-Bound Migrants

Essay: Approximately 250 North African migrants died this week when their boat capsized off the coast of Italy's Lampedusa island. According to writer Ferdinando Camon, the tragedy challenges everything Europeans thought they knew about immigrati

Immigrants in the port of Lampedusa
Immigrants in the port of Lampedusa
Ferdinando Camon

We now know the truth about immigration. We may have thought we knew before, but all of that was just a lie. Now we know.

We knew that thousands of migrants were crowding the island of Lampedusa, even outnumbering the local population. We knew their needs, and we called them wretched. We knew their demands, and we called them unbearable. We saw them climbing the fences of the shelters and running away through the fields, chased in vain by policemen on foot or horseback, like in the movies.

But that wasn't the truth. It was just an illusion. We Italians and Europeans wanted to believe migrants were dangerous people who could not be integrated. They threatened our decorum and our well-being. Our instinct was to scare them off. The more well-being there is to protect, the stronger the instinct for self-preservation.

On Wednesday April 6, as many as 250 men, women and children drowned when an overloaded boat carrying them to Europe capsized south of Sicily. This disaster has thrown in our faces a harsh truth which our brains and nerves – numbed by our bourgeois civilization – still have trouble comprehending. It will take days to really understand it. Every time we watch the news, we will understand a new piece of the truth. But at the same time, we will never understand it completely, because the news avoids scaring and hurting us.

But this disaster does hurt. The simple knowledge that it happened and can happen again is upsetting our lives. We can no longer live as we did before. We now know that the migrants are not running away from miserable lives. They are running away from death, and they are passing through death in order to run away.

The desire to improve their lives is not alone enough to drive these migrants for days and nights, to make them sail blindly, using only rudimentary tools in the dark sea and sky. Often the engine breaks. Often the drinking water runs out. All they can do then is pray. This "slow death" can last many days. Sometimes the rescue teams find someone on board who is already dead. The feeble survivors did not have the strength to throw the corpse into the sea. Other times, there are rumors someone was thrown off the ship, without the certainty that he was actually dead.

Wednesday's disaster was a "quick death," though. It was also a brutal death, which arrived with cruel irony when the travelers were close to safety. They saw a rescue boat arriving in the dark. They got scared, they panicked – tussling about inside the boat, and eventually causing it to capsize. Safety turned into death. Sometimes, the passage from life to death is merciless. The "quick death" is a clash with nature. In clashes of these kinds, everyone loses, but the weakest, children and women, lose first. So it happened that one man saved himself while his wife and children died.

We have to remember one more thing in order to really understand migration. All migrants hope these kinds of disasters will not befall them, but in the backs of their minds, they know these tragedies are not impossible. They leave with a warning light blinking in their heads.

We thought those old boats and inexperienced crowds were threatening us, the police, and our civic peace. In the end, though, it's their own fates the migrants are testing. They are fighting for life. If one makes it, he is saving himself and the ones who will follow. In the past, we saw boats crashing against the rocks. The lucky eight or 10 people who saved themselves spoke about the fellow travelers who had died during the journey. But they also hold up two fingers as a victory sign.

Italy and Europe use the power of law to restrain migrants from coming here. But these wayward travelers are driven by the power of despair. The clash is between these powers. Now we know.

Read the original article in Italian.

Photo - Sara Prestianni

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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