Sunday

19th Nov 2017

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.

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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

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