Italy ignores real cause of Lampedusa refugee tragedy

An unspeakable loss. EPA/Franco Lannino

The latest in a “succession of true slaughters of innocents”. This is how Italian president Giorgio Napolitano described the incident in which hundreds of migrants, mainly from Eritrea and Somalia, died after their boat passengers sank in waters near the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa. The boat was believed to have been carrying between 450 and 500 passengers. Many are still missing and hope for more survivors dim as the hours go by.

The scale of the disaster is such that it is reverberating well beyond Italy. “A disgrace” in the words of Pope Francis who, only a few weeks ago, visited Lampedusa in his first pastoral visit outside Rome urging a “reawakening of consciences” to counter the indifference shown to migrants. The international attention increased the pressure on Italian government officials. They must come up with solutions to avoid similar episodes in the future. But there is also an apparent urgency to apportion blame.

At the top of the list of alleged culprits are the traffickers who expose migrants to unacceptable risks for profit. There is of course an element of truth to this, but it also conveniently obscures the fact that the traffickers have customers to transport only because there are fewer legal routes to enter the EU for low-skilled migrants.

Provide alternative routes

In other words, it is not the traffickers who have made it nearly impossible for non-wealthy migrants to access the EU legally. The European Council for Refugees and Exiles has said Europe must provide refugees and other migrants “with an alternative to resorting to illegal means of entry through dangerous routes”.

Smugglers have no voice and for the media and politicians alike it is easy to portray them as the personification of evil. Less than a week ago 13 migrants drowned near the coastal town of Scicli after a boat carrying 200 people ran aground as it approached the shore. Media reported widely that two smugglers had pushed migrants into the sea using a whip. As professor Fulvio Vassallo Paleologo, of the Faculty of Law of Palermo, has validly pointed out in a recent blog, given that the boat ran aground near the shore it was unlikely that migrants drowned there. It is more likely that they jumped into the sea further away from the coast not to escape the whip but to avoid being detected by the police forces at the shore which would mean immediate identification, fingerprinting and detention. He also suggests the delay with which the rescue operation started contributed to the tragic outcome of the incident. When a migrant boat arrives, authorities prioritise detection and arrest of unauthorised migrants instead of making sure they land safely.

This takes me to two final considerations. President Napolitano’s call for the EU to intensify military patrols near the coast of North Africa is hardly a solution to a “demand for migration” among poor people. Instead of reducing casualties, this may result in even more dangerous routes to reach Europe. In other words, it addresses the symptoms but not the causes. Or, more cynically, it highlights once more the real priority of EU politicians that is keeping “unwanted” migrants outside the borders of “fortress Europe”.

Second, unnamed survivors quoted in the media said three fishing boats had seen the vessel was in trouble but had ignored the call for help. The Italian Minister of Interior Angelino Alfano has categorically rejected this as impossible given “Italians have big hearts”. Of a different view is Giusi Nicolini, the island’s mayor. Speaking to the Huffington Post Italy, she said:

Italy’s immigration law is inhumane. Three fishing boats didn’t offer rescue and left the vessel to its destiny because our country has put fishermen who helped migrants at sea under trial accusing them of facilitating illegal immigration.

Apart from displays of bewilderment and Christian solidarity by Italian government officials, it doesn’t seem to be a genuine intention to address the true causes of the latest tragedy. The call for a more substantial involvement of the EU risks becoming justification for a further militarisation of the Mediterranean Sea in order to keep aspiring migrants away from EU shores, dead or alive.

Nando Sigona has written an update on the Lampedusa tragedy here.