The past 20 years has seen an enormous loss of life across the Mediterranean Sea, as scores of immigrants cross dangerous territory in hope of a brighter future
On 3 October, a boat on the Mediterranean Sea a short distance from the Italian island of Lampedusa carrying more than 500 refugee immigrants was left to sink. Only 155 people are known to have survived. Most of the passengers were from Eritrea and Somalia.
Divers are still searching for the bodies of the missing. Experienced in dealing with tragedies, they were nonetheless horrified by sight of bodies so tightly packed together in the hold that they are still on their feet, with one woman’s hair flowing out the window of the boat lying 47 metres under the sea. One diver said he could not shake of the image of the dead with their arms raised as though calling for help. Another started to cry as he described pulling out the body of a child, saying it could have been his own son.
Some of the survivors swam to shore, a kilometre away. Others clung to empty water bottles to stay afloat until they were finally picked up after three hours in the sea. There is confusion as to why the boat did not find a docking point. Reports say the bay was too rocky to land. Some say the passengers started a fire to attract attention to their plight but it quickly spread and the boat sank. Survivors also report seeing a few boats in the distance, and describe one boat with a light that encircled them and then left.
The first fisherman to reach the fiery wreck sounded an alarm. He said that some of the 47 migrants he pulled from the sea had been stripped of their clothing, probably by the current. Other fishermen who arrived at the site were overcome with emotion at the sight of a sea full of floating refugees waving their arms and screaming for help. They asked how you could turn away when confronted with a person in dire need of help? It’s unthinkable that a fisherman of Lampedusa would pretend to see nothing. Another fisherman said he injured his arm lifting 18 kerosene-soaked bodies into his boat. One told BBC that the coastguard actually hampered rescue efforts; “they refused to take on board some people we’d already saved because they said protocol forbade it”.
The funeral was marked by 10 fishing boats which lowered bouquets of flowers over the spot where the submerged boat still lies, in honour of the remaining victims entombed in the hold. One of the boats in the area hoisted a black flag bristling in the wind with the simple word “Shame!” emblazoned on it. Children at the funeral carried a banner stating, “Enough! There is no excuse for indifference.”
Lampedusa is much closer to North Africa than to Italy. For migrants trying to enter Europe, the Mediterranean Sea, paradoxically one of the world’s most closely watched water bodies, is an ‘epicentre’ of death. This is the description used by non-governmental organisations who support the rights of immigrants to asylum in Europe. Part of what was unusual in this tragedy was the large number of women and children who died. Deaths in this dangerous trajectory occur regularly, but more often in smaller, mainly unnoticed numbers – and mostly young men. If their bodies don’t disappear, they sometimes wash ashore on resort beaches in Spain or Greece. Many cross in small, overcrowded boats that don’t have even the proper oars for rowing.
Previous to this disaster, the most notorious tragedy that caught widespread attention was the “left to die” boat during the Nato war on Libya – of 72 people, only 11 survived. Blame for deliberately ignoring their plight was clearly laid at Nato’s feet in a report from the Council of Europe.
Over the past twenty years an estimated 20,000 lives have been lost while crossing the Mediterranean Sea. About 1,500 of these deaths occurred in 2011 alone. Italy, Spain and Greece have been the closest entry points to Europe, but for those trying to go north it is only the last leg of a difficult and dangerous journey for a migrant. Abdul, a 16-year-old Somali boy who survived this latest crossing, said his father paid a total of $7,500 to smugglers to get him to Lampedusa, where he arrived by boat 12 days ago – about six months after leaving Mogadishu. “I want to study. I want a future,” he told Reuters. For many, entire families pool their resources to send one family member north, in the hope they are able to send money back to help the family.
For those who survive the journey, if they do not receive asylum they are forced to live in the shadows of society, often facing brutality at the hands of police and right-wing gangs who operate with impunity. Local lawyers argue that Italian laws aimed at curbing illegal migration dissuade boats from helping migrants in distress at sea. One commercial boat that picked up people on a drifting dinghy in the middle of the Mediterranean was forced by the Italian government to take them back to Libya. There are disputes between different sections of local governments and within the European Union over responsibility for rescuing immigrants.
Boatloads of impoverished immigrants poured out of Europe for centuries – Italy is only one example – but now no European country is willing to bear the expense of minimal operations of mercy mandated by international law. The 27 countries of the European Union have allocated a total of four ships, two helicopters and two planes for Mediterranean rescue operations, let alone open its arms to desperate migrants. Instead, openly or by implication, they try to make immigrants share the blame for the unemployment in their countries caused by the world’s capitalist financial crisis.
The survivors of this tragedy will be placed under investigation for “clandestine immigration”, an offence that could lead to a €5,000 euro fine. This puts the Italian government in league with the criminal smugglers, contributing to the exploitation and extortion of immigrants.
According to the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR, despite the dangers people face, from 1 January to 30 September this year, 30,100 migrants reached Italy on boats from North Africa. At this particular short moment in history the biggest groups were from Syria (7,500), Eritrea (7,500) and Somalia (3,000). The discussions taking place around this needless loss of life pose deeper questions; what kind of global system drives people out of their homelands, seeking refuge in perilous journeys abroad? Experience has shown – and now we have seen it demonstrated once again – that European states are happy to avoid responsibility despite being directly involved in the displacement of peoples across the globe.
Image from: http://972mag.com/eritrean-refugees-gather-in-south-tel-aviv-to-commemorate-lampedusa-shipwreck/80337/
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