Wednesday

26th Jun 2019

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

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join 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.

EU-Vietnam trade deal a bad day for workers' rights

Behind the smiles and handshakes, the signature of the EU-Vietnam trade and investment deals agreed on Tuesday and to be signed this week have dire consequences for human well-being and our ability to prevent climate and ecological breakdown.

Council of Europe vs Russia: stay or go?

We have reached the point where Russia threatens to leave the Council of Europe and cease to be party to the European Convention on Human Rights.

EU must counter Kushner's so-called 'peace' plan

This so-called "Deal of the Century" on Israel/Palestine is likely to be no more than a big sham, and the US-led economic peace workshop in Bahrain will hardly change this perception.

News in Brief

  1. EU to sign free trade deal with Vietnam
  2. EU funding of air traffic control 'largely unnecessary'
  3. Share trading ban looms as Swiss row with EU escalates
  4. Cooperation needed on Brexit, says Johnson
  5. Europe hit by record breaking June heat wave
  6. Liberal split complicates talks on new Spanish government
  7. Italy unravels massive European VAT carousel fraud
  8. Venezuelans cause spike in EU asylum bids

Six takeaways on digital disinformation at EU elections

For example, Germany's primetime TV news reported that 47 percent of political social media discussions were related to the extreme-right AfD party, when in fact this was the case only for Twitter - used by only four percent of Germans.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNo evidence that social media are harmful to young people
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersCanada to host the joint Nordic cultural initiative 2021
  4. Vote for the EU Sutainable Energy AwardsCast your vote for your favourite EUSEW Award finalist. You choose the winner of 2019 Citizen’s Award.
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersEducation gets refugees into work
  6. Counter BalanceSign the petition to help reform the EU’s Bank
  7. UNICEFChild rights organisations encourage candidates for EU elections to become Child Rights Champions
  8. UNESDAUNESDA Outlines 2019-2024 Aspirations: Sustainability, Responsibility, Competitiveness
  9. Counter BalanceRecord citizens’ input to EU bank’s consultation calls on EIB to abandon fossil fuels
  10. International Partnership for Human RightsAnnual EU-Turkmenistan Human Rights Dialogue takes place in Ashgabat
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNew campaign: spot, capture and share Traces of North
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersLeading Nordic candidates go head-to-head in EU election debate

Latest News

  1. EU parliament gives extra time for leaders on top jobs
  2. Europe's rights watchdog lifts Russia sanctions
  3. EU-Vietnam trade deal a bad day for workers' rights
  4. EU 'special envoy' going to US plan for Palestine
  5. Polish judicial reforms broke EU law, court says
  6. EU study: no evidence of 'East vs West' food discrimination
  7. Russia tried to stir up Irish troubles, US think tank says
  8. Babis unmoved by EU scam allegations

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Secretary General: Nordic co-operation must benefit everybody
  2. Platform for Peace and JusticeMEP Kati Piri: “Our red line on Turkey has been crossed”
  3. UNICEF2018 deadliest year yet for children in Syria as war enters 9th year
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic commitment to driving global gender equality
  5. International Partnership for Human RightsMeet your defender: Rasul Jafarov leading human rights defender from Azerbaijan
  6. UNICEFUNICEF Hosts MEPs in Jordan Ahead of Brussels Conference on the Future of Syria
  7. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic talks on parental leave at the UN
  8. International Partnership for Human RightsTrial of Chechen prisoner of conscience and human rights activist Oyub Titiev continues.
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic food policy inspires India to be a sustainable superpower
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersMilestone for Nordic-Baltic e-ID
  11. Counter BalanceEU bank urged to free itself from fossil fuels and take climate leadership
  12. Intercultural Dialogue PlatformRoundtable: Muslim Heresy and the Politics of Human Rights, Dr. Matthew J. Nelson

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us