After the death of at least 130 Somalian and Eritrean migrants off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa, the Italian (and European) press is once again filled with words of pathos: the human tragedy, the pictures of lined body bags and the tears of Lampedusans for those who never reached them.
There is the Espresso magazine, who wants to nominate the small island of Lampedusa for the Nobel prize. And there are those who can’t wait to see the end of the rescue operations to start a debate about the role of the new Minister of integration Cécile Kyenge and Laura Boldrini, president of the Chamber of Deputies. According to Gianluca Pini, “the two women have on their conscience all the illegal immigrants who died during these months because of their goody two-shoes declarations of support for ‘third world countries’.”
“I want the prime minister Enrico Letta to count the corpses here with me,” wrote Giusy Nicolini, mayor of Lampedusa, in a telegram sent to Rome yesterday. “The sea is filled with dead bodies. It’s an infinite horror. This is enough, how much longer should we wait after this?”, she told journalists while assisting to the recovery of the bodies from the sea.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, there were around 500 passengers from Eritrea and Somalia on the boat that left from Libya.
The Italian press mostly used the expression barcone di immigrati (pontoon of immigrants) or the word ecatombe to underline the number of deaths, one of the highest in recent years.
Gabriele del Grande, freelance journalist and author of the blog Fortress Europe in which he counts the number of deaths in the European Union’s “border war”, claims the responsibility of the tragedy lies with the Bossi-Fini legislation and blames the process of visa permits that are very difficult to obtain. This situation leads to refugees traveling for months in the Saharan desert, arriving in Libya and then paying for a very risky cross over the Mediterranean Sea.
Father Virginio Colmegna, president of the charity foundation “Angelo Abriani” in Milan, writes on his blog hosted by the Repubblica:
What happened today in Lampedusa has become a chilling normality. Wrong laws, repressive measures against migration and lack of interest from European countries that are not directly affected by the daily arrival of migrants, haven’t dampened the power of criminal organizations that transport without any scruples those who dream of Europe.
“Let’s stop calling it ‘a tragedy’,” say the NGOs and the charities who work to support the migrants after their arrival in Italy. Savino Pezzotta, president of the Italian Council for Refugees, accuses of demagoguery those politicians who proclaim that we need to think of our “personal problems” first. “The slogan ‘don’t let them enter Italy’ won’t solve problems,” he says, “we need to accompany them as refugees from their country of origin.”
Just three days ago, Italian theater actor Ascanio Celestini was in Lampedusa from where he wrote a diary piece for Il Fatto Quotidiano:
In Lampedusa there are two graves. In one there are the dead, in the other you find the living. They have one thing in common: they are both nameless. Those two graves lie outside the small towns of Contrada Cala Pisana and Contrada Imbriacola. They are respectively the cemetery and the reception center for foreigners … According to data of the Ministry of the Interior it can accommodate 381 people, but the mayor Giusi Nicolini says that there are currently more than 1000, of which 100 are children.
Yesterday’s loss is hardly an isolated incident however: according to NGOs monitoring the situation, more than 13,000 have died at the maritime borders of the European Union between 1988 and 2012, among which 6,000 in the Sicily Channel alone. And the numbers of dead have being going up. Just in 2011, UNHCR estimated that 1,500 asylum seekers, refugees and other migrants have died trying to reach European shores.
Italian politicians are playing the usual blaming game: calling for more involvement of the European Union, while turning a blind eye to the fact that the militarization of the Mediterranean via its FRONTEX agency contributes to traffickers taking more risks and making the crossing less safe. And promises of investigating fishermen for defaulting on their obligations of assistance conveniently ignores that Italy has prosecuted fishermen in the past, accusing them of ‘facilitating illegal immigration’ as Lampedusa’s mayor pointed out yesterday. The truth is, the legal means to reach the European Union for protection reasons are shrinking and now almost non-existent while lending a helping hand is fast becoming a crime. The Italian government went as far as announcing a national day of mourning and a minute of silence has been observed in every school in Italy today. As if to better hide that those are not just “unfortunate deaths”, they are deaths by policy.
* Jacques Enaudeau contributed to this post. Photo from Mashid Mohadjerin’s series “Boat Migrants”.
Routes of irregular migrants from Africa to Europe (click to enlarge). Source: Hein de Haas, The Myth of Invasion (2007):