The Italian government declared last Friday to be a national day of mourning. President Giorgio Napolitano talked of the latest in ‘a succession of true slaughters of innocents’. ‘We must end this now’, insisted Jean-Claude Mignon, head of the Council of Europe’s parliamentary assembly. ‘I hope that this will be the last time we see a tragedy of this kind’. The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, said the disaster should be ‘a spur to action’. Pope Francis called it ‘a disgrace’.
I have no doubt that Western leaders are sincere in their expressions of anger and grief about the tragedy at Lampedusa where, last week, a boat carrying migrants sank, leading to perhaps 300 being drowned. And yet one cannot but be cynical about all the lamentation. The horror of Lampedusa did not come out of the blue. Much of the responsibility lies with the policies pursued by European nations.
Since 1988 some 20,000 migrants have died trying to enter Europe. Two-thirds of them perished in the Mediterranean. 20,000. Think about it. That is the equivalent of three Lampedusas every year for the past quarter century. In 2011 alone more than 1500 migrants lost their lives in the waters of the Mediterranean – a Lampedusa tragedy every ten weeks. And these are only the people of whom we know. There are likely to be thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, who have died in silence, whose deaths have never been recorded.
Just a week ago thirteen peopled drowned near Sicily. Few reporters reported the story, no politician expressed his grief. Neither did they when, two weeks before that, twelve migrants lost their lives off the coast of Cueta in Spain. Nor when another six drowned, again nearly Sicily, in August. And so the list continues.
Last week’s horror was neither an accident nor merely a tragedy. It was the gruesomely inevitable consequence of EU border policies. For more than three decades the EU has been constructing a Fortress Europe to keep the ‘unwanted’ from landing on the shores of the continent, spending hundreds of millions of euros on external border controls. At the end of this year the latest scheme, Eurosur, a new Mediterranean surveillance and data-sharing system making use of drones and satellites is due to come on stream. European policymakers claim that the system will help prevent disasters such as the one in Lampedusa. History suggests that it will be deployed to prevent migrants from reaching Europe but not to save their lives.
Fortress Europe has created not only a physical barrier around the continent, but an emotional one, too, around Europe’s sense of humanity. Migrants have come to be seen less as living, breathing human beings than as so much flotsam and jetsam to be swept away from Europe’s beaches.
Last week, as the people on the stricken ship were dying and pleading for help, three fishing boats refused to provide aid. They declined even to inform the coastguards. Why? Because, as Giusi Nicolini, mayor of Lampedusa, put it, there is long history of ‘our country bringing fishermen who saved human lives to court, charging them with aiding and abetting illegal immigration’.
In 2004, the Cap Anamur, a German ship that belonged to a charity of the same name, rescued 37 migrants who had been stranded, sick and freezing, in a rubber dinghy in the Mediterranean. The Italian authorities banned the ship from landing because it might, in the words of the then Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu, set a ‘dangerous precedent’. The Cap Anamur eventually entered the port of Empedocle without permission. The authorities seized the ship, arrested the crew and charged the captain, the first officer and the head of the charity with ‘aiding illegal immigration’, a charge that carried with it a penalty of four years’ imprisonment. After a five-year court battle, the men were eventually acquitted.
In 2007 two Tunisian fishing boats rescued 44 stranded migrants and brought them to Lampedusa. Again, the Italian authorities refused the ships permission to enter port and even tried physically to block them. When the captains disobeyed those orders, they were charged not just with aiding illegal immigration but also with ‘resisting a public officer’ and ‘committing violence against a warship’. In court they were acquitted of the former charges but convicted of the latter ones. It took until 2011 for the Court of Appeal to overturn all the charges.
Such inhuman actions are not restricted to the Italian authorities. In 2011 a boat carrying 72 passengers left the Libyan port of Tripoli for Lampedusa. It soon ran into trouble. The migrants contacted the Italian coastguard. NATO, which had many vessels in the area, was informed of the boat’s plight by the Rome-based Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centre. According to the survivors, military airplanes, which the Guardian claimed were from the French aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, buzzed the boat. A military helicopter, thought to be Italian, even dropped some bottles of water on the first day of their plight. But no one deigned to rescue the stricken boat. It was allowed to drift in open waters for more than two weeks, without fuel or supplies. Sixty-one of those on board died of hunger, thirst and cold, and another one after the survivors, who finally made landfall back in Libya, were thrown into prison by the Libyan authorities.
A subsequent eight-month long Council of Europe investigation into the tragedy revealed that ‘the Libyan authorities failed to maintain responsibility for their Search and Rescue zone, the Italian and Maltese Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres failed to launch any search and rescue operation, and NATO failed to react to the distress calls, even though there were military vessels under its control in the boat’s vicinity when the distress call was sent… The flag States of vessels close to the boat also failed to rescue the people in distress. Furthermore, two unidentified commercial fishing vessels also failed to respond to the direct calls for assistance from the boat in distress.’
The Mediterranean, the report’s author Tineke Strik observed, ‘is one of the busiest seas in the world, and at the same time one of the best monitored. Yet, in 2011, the Mediterranean was also the sea in which the most people disappeared. I am not talking about somewhere in the middle of the Pacific, but about the Canal of Sicily which is full of ships, with many radars and with satellite imagery available.’ ‘We can talk as much as we want about human rights and the importance of complying with international obligations’, he told reporters, ‘but if at the same time we just leave people to die – perhaps because we don’t know their identity or because they come from Africa – it exposes how meaningless those words are’.
‘That constitutes a crime’, observed Father Moses Zerai, a priest in Rome whom the migrants had contacted, and who in turn had contacted the coastguard, ‘and that crime cannot go unpunished just because the victims were African migrants and not tourists on a cruise liner’. But that crime has gone unpunished, because no one in authority regards deliberately allowing 62 African migrants to die to be a crime. That is the reality of Fortress Europe: a continent so blinded by its obsession about illegal immigration that it has lost the ability to recognize its most basic of obligations to other human beings. The fear of allowing illegal immigrants into Europe seems to weigh heavier on the European conscience than the guilt of allowing fellow human beings (who just happen to be African) to die. Fortress Europe is a policy without a conscience.
Yet, for all the grief and anger expressed by politicians in the wake of the latest Lampedusa disaster, there is no sense that anything will change. The survivors of the disaster have already been charged with illegally entering Europe. There have been calls across the EU for better surveillance, greater militarization of the Mediterranean, harsher punishments for illegal immigrants and those who aid them, closer ‘co-operation’ with North African states such as Libya and Morocco to prevent migrants from even entering the Med. Far from saving lives, these are the very policies that have led to 20,000 people being killed in the past quarter of a century.
The only policy that could prevent more tragedies like that last week is the only policy that no European politician will countenance: the liberalization of border controls, and the dismantling of Fortress Europe. Too obsessed by illegal immigration, that is the one option not on the table. So the next time there is another tragedy as at Lampudesa – and there will be a next time, and a next time after that – and politicians across Europe express shock and grief and anger, remember this: they could have helped prevent it, and chose not to. That is the real disgrace.
The pictures are of coffins on Lampedusa (AP Photo/ Luca Bruno) and ‘The Journey’, a painting by an Italian school student courtesy of Fortress Europe. The cover image is from ‘The Horror’ by R. from the Refugee Art Project.