Tuesday

9th Aug 2022

Opinion

Lampedusa tragedy: An SOS the EU can no longer ignore

  • Survivor from Mali: 'People began to fall into the sea. At each wave, two or three were taken away' (Photo: DukeUnivLibraries)

“They took the coffins to Sicily this morning. There was no warning, we found out from the TV. We'd never allow them to go without a flower.”

This was the stoic reaction of one Lampedusa resident to the solemn procession of hearses after the tiny Italian island played host to another boat disaster on an epic scale last week.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

The headlines are becoming sadly predictable, but that doesn’t make them any less striking: More than 300 dead in the latest migrant tragedy.

I travelled to Lampedusa in the immediate aftermath of the events of 8-9 February to interview survivors about their ordeal.

According to the few dozen who escaped with their lives, three of the four inflatable rubber dinghies that set sail from Libya were lost to the murky depths of the Mediterranean. Each boat had around 105 people on board, most of them from West Africa.

After paying people smugglers around €650 each to cross the Mediterranean, the migrants were forced at gunpoint to board the crowded boats on 7 February. The following day, as they were tossed about in stormy seas between Libya and Lampedusa, they remained at the mercy of waves that started washing people overboard.

They sent out an SOS call but the treacherous conditions and exposure to the elements meant that most of them – about 300 in all – didn’t survive long enough to be rescued.

The Italian coast guard responded admirably and, after a long and arduous rescue operation, managed to pick up 105 people, including three children, from one of the four dinghies in distress. But their ordeal was not over, and 29 of the rescued migrants then died of hypothermia.

One of the four dinghies was never found, and only a handful of survivors from the remaining two boats were pulled from the sea by commercial ships.

The survivors harbour grim tales of mass death. One, a young man from Mali, described the horror he witnessed: “People began to fall into the sea. At each wave, two or three were taken away.” With water up to his belly inside the dinghy, he clung on all night to a rope for dear life.

When a commercial ship finally came to the rescue, he was one of only two people left on a dinghy that had set out with more than 100 passengers on board. This harrowing tragedy joins a sombre list of similar incidents.

The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimates that nearly 3,500 people died attempting this journey in 2014, making it the world’s deadliest sea crossing for migrants.

According to the International Organisation for Migration, many of the men, women and children making the trip, often to flee war and oppression, had fallen victim to criminal gangs seeking to profit from their misery.

Thousands of people are crossing every month and all predictions are that this number will only rise.

The weekend after the latest calamity, departures of refugees and migrants surged, and will continue to do so as Libya descends deeper into violence. The Italian coast guard confirmed that they and commercial vessels rescued more than 2,800 migrants from at least 18 boats between Friday 13 and Sunday 15 February.

A simple but fatal equation is at play: as more people risk everything to make this perilous trip and fewer resources are being put into search-and-rescue operations, the only logical conclusion is that more will die.

Amnesty International predicted this horrific outcome late last year as European Union (EU) policymakers pushed Italy to end its Mare Nostrum search-and-rescue programme.

Triton is inadequate

The new pan-EU border control operation, Triton, pales in comparison.

Although Triton assets have been contributing to rescue operations over the weekend, it doesn’t have a search-and-rescue focus and is mandated to keep within 30 miles from Italian coasts, thus steering clear of international waters where boats frequently get into the most trouble.

During the latest Lampedusa tragedy, Triton’s main vessel was moored hundreds of kilometres away in Malta for maintenance. EU countries’ lacklustre response in the face of an immense and growing humanitarian catastrophe is callous.

Lampedusa Mayor Giusi Nicolini perhaps summed it up best when she told me: “When the dead arrive, one feels defeated. One wonders why nothing ever changes. Europe is completely absent – one does not need to be an expert in politics to understand that.”

EU leaders pledge to help those fleeing war and persecution. But behind the scenes, the reality is that they batten down the hatches on “Fortress Europe” to halt the flow of people coming to the continent.

Building border fences, engaging in “pushbacks” of migrant boats, and even firing rubber bullets at migrants in the sea have all been deployed as deterrents.

Several European governments and politicians pushed for the closure of Mare Nostrum to stop people from coming. Now that Mare Nostrum is no longer operational, they should take responsibility. There are 300 families now looking for their sons, brothers, husbands and fathers, who will never be found.

It is unacceptable for EU leaders to continue to bury their heads in the sand while people are dying in their droves on Europe’s doorstep.

All EU member states have a shared responsibility to respond to this SOS. This includes stepping up search-and-rescue capability in a bid to diminish such tragedies in the future.

Matteo de Bellis is Italy campaigner at Amnesty International

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

EU mute on new Italian decree to fine NGO boats

In 2013, the European Commission declared ships that help migrants in distress would not face sanctions. Now - six years later - Italy's government endorses a decree to impose fines up to €50,000 for rescue boats docking in Italian ports.

How Ukraine made the case anew for an EU army

The Kremlin attacked Ukraine because it believed it could afford to. It perceived nuclear deterrence between Russia and the West as reciprocal, and therefore almost a non-issue. It also saw, in military terms, Europe is disappearing from the world map.

Let Taiwan's democracy shine brighter

Dr Ming-Yen Tsai, head of the Taipei Representative Office in the EU and Belgium, responds to EUobserver op-ed on Taiwan by the Chinese ambassador to Belgium. "Taiwan is an 'island of resilience'. That will continue to be the case."

Supporting Taiwan 'like carrying water in a sieve'

China's ambassador to Belgium, Cao Zhongming, says the US has been distorting, obscuring and hollowing out the 'one-China' principle and unscrupulously undermining China's core interests. This is sheer double standards and a shameful act of bad faith.

One idea to tackle Big Energy's big profits

A new idea, besides a windfall tax on polluting Big Energy giants, is to make them invest their profits in their own sustainable futures. After all, these companies have a large 'sustainability debt' and extraordinary transition costs awaiting them.

Column

Global hunger crisis requires more than just the Odessa deal

International donors are playing hide and seek. Instead of stepping up their assistance programmes, richer nations are cutting overseas aid, or reallocating funds from other parts of the world towards the Ukraine crisis.

Exploiting the Ukraine crisis for Big Business

From food policy to climate change, corporate lobbyists are exploiting the Ukraine crisis to try to slash legislation that gets in the way of profit. But this is only making things worse.

News in Brief

  1. Rhine river on the brink of closure for shipping
  2. Moldova sees 'prelude to war' with Russia-backed forces
  3. Taliban preventing Afghan evacuations to Germany
  4. Amnesty regrets 'distress' caused by Ukraine report
  5. Energy companies warn UK gas exports to EU are contaminated
  6. EU set for clash over rules on political adverts
  7. Three grain ships due to leave Ukraine on Friday
  8. EU on track to reach gas-storage November target

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. EFBWW – EFBH – FETBBConstruction workers can check wages and working conditions in 36 countries
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Canadian ministers join forces to combat harmful content online
  3. European Centre for Press and Media FreedomEuropean Anti-SLAPP Conference 2022
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers write to EU about new food labelling
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersEmerging journalists from the Nordics and Canada report the facts of the climate crisis
  6. Council of the EUEU: new rules on corporate sustainability reporting

Latest News

  1. Italy poised to elect far-right rulers
  2. UN chief demands access to nuclear plant after new attack
  3. Greek PM embroiled in spyware scandal
  4. How Ukraine made the case anew for an EU army
  5. 'We must take back institutions', Orban tells US conservatives
  6. Putin must lose Ukraine war, Nato chief says
  7. Let Taiwan's democracy shine brighter
  8. Droughts prompt calls to cut water use amid harvest fears

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us