The Mediterranean remains for another year the deadliest passage on the planet and in the last seven years more than 23 thousand refugees are estimated to have lost their lives trying to cross it to a better tomorrow, said the rescuer and activist Jason Apostolopoulos, speaking at an event held at TEPAK.
The well-known Greek activist was speaking at an event on the theme “Immigration and solidarity: Building resistance against xenophobia and racism”, held on the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, with the participation of the representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Cyprus, Emilia Strovolidou.
During the event, the results of the public opinion survey by the University Field Research Center, University of Cyprus, on the perceptions of Cypriots about refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants, which were published earlier yesterday by the High Commission, were presented.
In the presence of students and high school students of Limassol, Jason Apostolopoulos spoke about his action over the years, trying to rescue refugees together with groups of volunteer rescuers, while he criticized the attitude of the EU through its policies .
"In the last seven years more than 23 thousand people have lost their lives as a result of a conscious political choice by European states not to rescue refugees, to ignore danger signals, to criminalize rescue, to force refugees to take longer and longer routes and not to provide safe passages”, he said and indicated that the number of dead cannot be calculated with certainty.
It is terrible, he continued, how many people are lost every day and we will never know, "the so-called invisible shipwrecks", since in several cases broken inflatable boats are found without any trace of life.
At the same time, he added , there are "floating coffins", wooden boats, "where people are piled into the holds and some they die of suffocation, as a result of which the boat moves forward for hours, carrying the living alongside the dead.
"Rescue in the Mediterranean is a race. “If we don't spot the boats in time, people fall into the water and drown,” he said, noting that the majority of refugees are people exhausted by the torture in Libya, they don't know how to swim, but they prefer to risk their lives to escape.
Many of them, he explained, start their journey from sub-Saharan Africa and, crossing the Sahara desert, attempt to escape through Libya, where thousands of armed forces are active fighting for control of the country. Researches, he continued, speak of more dead in the Sahara than in the Mediterranean, as many are found by armed men and are left to die in the desert, while those who manage to reach Libya are usually arrested and end up in improvised detention centers, where they are tortured until a ransom is paid for their release and in case they do not have the financial means, they are sold as slaves or executed.< /p>
The EU, said Mr. Apostolopoulos, not only does not talk about these detention centers, “but has included them in its so-called anti-immigration planning, finances them and wants to build more, since it is the Commission's official position that it wants detention centers in North Africa to stop migration to Europe».
He also noted that “with the declaration of Malta, signed in 2017 by all member states, the EU committed to funding the Libyan coastguard, which is actually a militia association of Tripoli, which receives a packet of money, with sole objective is to stop the boats with the refugees and return them to the detention centers in Libya. “The EU has basically signed an agreement with Libyan groups to return refugees to the slave markets,” he added.
“Ever since these people take money from Europe to stop refugees, it has made the rescue work very difficult, because they are paid by the number of refugees they stop and show great zeal in capturing people,” he said and indicated that, "we are essentially playing a chase and trying to find them before the EU-funded coastguard finds them.
He himself, he said, witnessed men from a Libyan coastguard boat removing life jackets from refugees, which his rescue team had earlier conceded so that they would not be able to survive at sea.
Jason Apostolopoulos also stated that the international community should pay more attention to this EU agreement, which, as he said, "is devastating for human rights".
For her part, the representative of the UNHCR in Cyprus, Emilia Strovolidou, stated that racism, xenophobia and discrimination are the main causes of the displacement of millions of people worldwide, and it is estimated that more than 3 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes, worldwide,  ; due to conflict, violence and violations of their human rights.
"One in 77 people in the world has been forcibly displaced, a number that has more than doubled since a decade ago, with numbers that are shocking and unacceptable" ?, he said, and added that, unfortunately, many refugees continue to face intolerance and rejection in asylum countries where they seek safety.
"The international community must focus on finding political solutions to stop wars and human rights violations, but at the same time and in parallel, until this is possible, we must affirm our commitment to the universal principle of providing asylum to people at risk their lives from wars and persecutions”, he added.
Referring to the case of Cyprus, Ms. Strovolidou noted that today there are approximately 36,500 asylum seekers and 16,400 recognized refugees, while "the newly arrived asylum seekers face many challenges both in terms of their first reception in Pournara and the subsequent transition to the community".
Their living, he continued, remains extremely difficult and they face many problems which mainly arise from the lengthy delays in the examination of asylum applications, their limited access to the labor market, the lack of housing infrastructure, the very little public assistance and the limited access to social integration programs.< /p>
Emphasizing that a comprehensive integration plan is needed, he expressed the hope that the relevant plan, which has been pending for two years, will soon be adopted by the new Government, emphasizing at the same time that "the main step towards integration is the creation of a welcoming society without discrimination, xenophobia and racism”.
In relation to the public opinion survey presented at the event, by the professor of the Psychology Department of the University of Cyprus Haris Psaltis, the representative of UNHCR in Cyprus said that the negative attitude of Cypriots, especially to asylum seekers, has increased since the last public opinion survey, and how "is ? worryingly, the majority of respondents stated that neither asylum seekers nor refugees are beneficial to the local community or to the culture of the country.
Read also: Staged armed robbery – Parachute flares seized