Sunday

14th Apr 2024

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

Get the EU news that really matters

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.

Calling time on Amazon's monopolism and exploitation

As Amazon's founder Jeff Bezos just reclaimed the title of the richest person on Earth, its workers cannot even take a bathroom break under the pressure of meeting inhumane performance targets.

The Bolsonaro-Orbán far-right nexus

Defeated far-right Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has given various reasons for sheltering at the Hungarian embassy in Brasilia — none of them make sense.

The problem of corruption in Ukraine — and a solution

Sunlight is the best disinfectant— so in a way, it is encouraging to see corruption scandals coming to the fore, as this may deter potential future graft, a key prerequisite for Kyiv's eventual EU accession.

This 'deregulation' lobbying now threatens EU economy

Next week's EU summit (17-18 April) will discuss the strategic agenda for the next five years. The current "competitiveness agenda" is to a large extent driven by a big lobbying campaign — so far, not well covered by the media.

Latest News

  1. UK-EU deal on Gibraltar only 'weeks away'
  2. Belgium declares war on MEPs who took Russian 'cash'
  3. Brussels Dispatches: Foreign interference in the spotlight
  4. Calling time on Amazon's monopolism and exploitation
  5. Resist backlash on deforestation law, green groups tell EU
  6. China's high-quality development brings opportunities to the world
  7. Ukraine tops aid list again, but EU spending slumps
  8. Who did Russia pay? MEPs urge spies to give names

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

EU news that matters

Join us