Europe Grieves Migrant Deaths At Sea


For weeks, the eyes of Europe have been fixed on an Italian island with 4000 inhabitants, two supermarkets, one coffee shop and one pub – and an airport hanger full of corpses.

The people of Lampedusa didn’t have a building large enough to store all the dead from the sinking of a ship of immigrants in early October. So the old military airport – with its two gates and its cracked runway – is where all the dead from the first disaster, on 3 October, have been stored.

Most of the victims were Eritreans, from a country whose president has been in power since the country won independence in 1993. Eritrea is a place where, according to human rights groups, the government imposes indefinite military service on citizens – and even conscripts children.

By the end of last week, the divers from the Italian coast guard had barely retrieved all the dead from that shipwreck. The politicians in Brussels and Rome had barely finished making all their solemn pledges and promises when another boat sunk, taking with it more lives.

This time, most of the victims were Syrian. They were fleeing a conflict whose savagery has become notorious throughout the world. Again, as after the first wreck, it may be days before we know how many refugees drowned in the waters of the Mediterranean Sea.

Right now, the official counts say, several dozen people died in Friday’s tragedy. But this weekend, the European press is full of accounts suggesting many more may have died in the accident, 60 miles south of Lampedusa. 

“This could be one of the worst accidents in the Mediterranean ever. The dead could be more than 200,” writes L’Espresso’s Fabrizio Gatti, an experienced immigration correspondent.

Friday’s ship, a mothballed fishing vessel, parted from Zuwara in northern Libya packed with Syrian refugees. In Libya, tribes and their militias run many towns and the country’s external borders. The state apparatus is effectively powerless; prime minister Ali Zeidan was briefly kidnapped by militia late last week.

Indeed, some accounts indicate that Libyan gunmen may have had a hand in last Friday’s boat wreck. Testimony collected by several Italian media outlets cites accounts from migrants suggesting precisely this.

“The Libyans started shooting at us from behind when they saw us, killing two of us,” survivors of the shipwreck quoted by a Corriere della Sera journalist said.

“According to the accounts gathered [from survivors on Malta], the shooting began a short time before the boat capsized; a Libyan motorboat opened fire,” the Milan daily reported, without indicating the precise identity of the Libyans. Other reports identify the gunmen as either border guards or militiamen. 

In recent months, Rome has attempted to make agreements with Tripoli to stem migrant flows across Italy’s borders. However, a June deal between the two sides has remained unimplemented, according to Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano.

“On June 4, [Italy and Libya] signed a cooperation deal that involved Libya’s commitment to control its coastline in exchange for Italy’s commitment to educate and train Libyan police.” It followed an earlier accord in April, under which Libya agreed to receive migrant boats pushed back by the Italian coastguard, Il Fatto Quotidiano adds.

It seems neither of the deals have been put into practice, the Rome daily writes.

Italy has also reduced its coastal patrols, at a time when more and more migrants were arriving. European patrols of the waters around Lampedusa decreased, too: Frontex, the European border control agency, has had funding reduced by over a quarter since 2011, Il Fatto Quotidiano says. 

Over and beyond the immediate policy failures, some are calling for an overhaul of European bilateral migration policies, which have often pivoted on a combination of coastal policing, expulsions of migrants and anti-migration accords with Europe’s neighbours.

Italy’s government has announced it wishes to overturn a 2002 law, the Bossi/Fini law, which allows Italy to expel migrants without papers if they cannot prove they have secured a job, and which penalises ship captains who pick up migrants in distress. Many say that the penalties against ship captains make them reticent to aid vessels in distress.

Now Italian prime minister Enrico Letta is poised to overturn that law. He made the announcement after 100,000 Italians signed a petition against it.

“The only serious response to the tragedy of Lampedusa is the overturning of that law, substituting it for a law that respects the rights of people,” editorialises Italian daily La Repubblica.

Others say Europe needs a new deal on migration, one that stops boats taking to the seas while allowing migrants and refugees to apply for visas elsewhere.

Not even a functional Libyan government could prevent desperate Syrian refugees from arriving, argues Spanish daily El País. Instead, European governments need to open up a legal route for migrants to enter from North Africa.

“Regional instability invites false nostalgia for the times in which the dictatorships of the zone controlled the borders with an iron fist,” the Madrid daily opines.

But this ignores the fact that migrant flows to Europe have been increasing since before the Arab Spring, El País says; no amount of policing has been able to stop that from happening.

Instead of expecting North African states to house expelled migrants indefinitely, as has been the case, European governments ought to process migrant requests for entry in transit countries, the Spanish paper says. This is the agreement that the EU has concluded with Morocco, for instance:

“The [agreement]includes two fundamental elements: The North African country has agreed to readmit all of the immigrants that Europe intercepts. In exchange, Brussels makes the visa application process easier.”

The recent disasters off Lampedusa have shifted the debate on immigration in Europe. In the south, governments are shifting away from taking a hardline approach to the problem.

However, northern Europe continues to advocate tough border controls. Berlin’s line echoes that of Canberra: Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich argues that a generous refugee intake alleviates Berlin of its responsibility for dealing with migrant flows.

The Lampedusa issue seems to be turning into another “north versus south debate”. But any further tragedies could again shift those fronts. European voters have rarely been more sensitive to the plight of migrants. 

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