The full death toll from the capsized boat carrying an estimated 500 migrants to Lampedusa will probably never be known, but with more than a hundred bodies recovered so far, and others still coming in, it is already one of the most shocking tragedies in the history of Europe’s lethal anti-migrant maritime borders.
While bodies and coffins accumulate in Lampedusa’s tiny harbours, coastguards and fishermen have described trying to rescue men and women covered in fuel who slid from their arms and drowned. The dozens of children who also drowned did not even get that close.
This awful event has provoked an outpouring of grief, horror and sympathy in Italy and beyond, as it should. Italy has declared a day of national mourning. The residents of Lampedusa have held a special mass and a candlelit procession to commemorate the victims, one of whose participants held up a wooden cross made from a wrecked boat on which was written ‘ We want to welcome the living, not the dead.’
Not all Lampedusans feel like this, but many do. Two years ago more than 17,000 Tunisians arrived on the island, more than doubling the population at certain points. While the Italian government played politics and did nothing to provide them with food or shelter, many Lampedusans took up the slack and fed them themselves.
There was a time when Lampedusa was a tranquil holiday island, whose population made their living from tourism and fishing. All that changed more than two decades ago, when Italy joined the Schengen Area and Lampedusa became the southern periphery of the European Union and a major destination for migrants taking what the European Border Agency Frontex calls the ‘Central Mediterranean route.’
Since then Lampedusa has seen more than its fair share of migrant tragedies, but nothing like this. Now a black flag with the single word ‘shame’ has been erected over the graveyard of decommissioned migrant boats piled up in front of its tourist harbour – echoing the Pope’s denunciation of the tragedy as a ‘disgrace’.
Such accusations are well-deserved. Because it is utterly shameful and disgraceful that men, women and children should be dying in the Mediterranean or anywhere else, and the shame is shared by many different institutions and groups of people.
It includes the government of Isaias Afewerki in Eritrea, which has turned what was once one of the most inspiring and promising products of decolonisation into a country that thousands of its citizens are desperate to leave – and are often shot for trying. And the hard-faced bastards who stuffed nearly 500 people without lifejackets, most of whom couldn’t swim, into a 20-metre boat that was clearly a potential death trap before it ever left Libya, so that they could make as much money as possible from their journey.
The sign in Lampedusa might also be directed at the racist Northern League, for whom the deaths of more than 300 people has done nothing more than prompt yet another outpouring of poisonous and disgusting bile directed at Italy’s first black MP, the DRC-born Minister for Integration Cecile Kyenge.
Having disgraced the Italian parliament by comparing Kyenge to an orangutan, the League has now had the revolting temerity to call for her resignation because, it argues, the deaths in Lampedusa are a result of her calls for the integration of Italy’s immigrants and clear citizenship pathways.
So let us by all means condemn the dictators and criminals who helped make this tragedy happen, and the racists who seek to use it for their own malignant purposes. But others also bear responsibility. Events like this tend to produce a depressingly familiar and predictable response from European governments and EU representatives.
On the one hand there is genuine horror, disgust and sympathy. Few politicians actually want women and children to be drowning on the continent’s borders or suffocating in the back of trucks in Dover. At the same time such tragedies inevitably become another occasion for venting moral outrage at the ‘ criminal networks exploiting human despair’, as EU Commissioner for Home Affairs Cecilia Malmstrom put it in a statement this week.
Many ‘people smugglers’ are indeed worthy of condemnation. But the moral outrage directed towards them is steeped in bad faith, if not outright hypocrisy. Because the simple, unavoidable fact is that such networks – whatever their motivations or modus operandi – exist in order to help migrants overcome the physical and bureaucratic obstacles that have been placed in their path by European governments.
In her statement last week, Cecilia Malmstrom declared ‘Europe has to step up its effort to prevent these tragedies and show solidarity both with migrants and with countries that are experiencing increasing migratory flows.’
Laudable sentiments no doubt, but there is little expression of ‘solidarity’ with migrants in Europe’s border regimes. At present, Europe is negotiating an agreement with the Moroccan government which will effectively outsource border enforcement and allow Spain to send migrants who enter its territory back into Morocco, rather than process their claims for asylum.
This already happens on a de facto basis. In the last year, Morocco has stepped up its deportations of migrants across the Oujda border with Algeria, many of whom are simply shunted into the desert at night.
The EU knows this perfectly well, but has kept its mouth firmly shut. Nor has it done anything about the horrendous detention centres in Libya, where migrants were routinely detained under Gaddafi and still by the democrats who NATO helped to overthrow him.
In August this year, Italy ordered two commercial ships which had rescued migrants in distress off the Libyan coast to take them back to Libya – a de facto continuation of the ‘push-back’ agreement signed between the Berlusconi government and Gaddafi in 2009.
So much for solidarity. The problem is that is very difficult to show meaningful empathy with people you are determined to prevent from reaching your territory, and who you lock up when they succeed in reaching it – the better to deport as many of them as possible as far as the law allows and sometimes when it doesn’t.
Malmstrom called, as governments usually do in such circumstances, for more comprehensive maritime rescue, and hailed the forthcoming roll out of the Eurosur satellite observation system as an important tool in this effort. But the main purpose of Eurosur is preventing ‘illegal immigration’ by more intensive surveillance of the Mediterranean. Saving lives is at best a corollary of that essential objective and at worst a humanitarian figleaf.
If Europe really wanted to show solidarity with the migrants who are coming to its shores, there are a lot of things it could do to make their journeys safer. ‘Humanitarian corridors’ are one option – not only at sea, but along the equally dangerous land routes that migrants are forced to take. More generous reciprocal agreements with migrant-producing countries in order to allow more documented travel is another.
Europe could also sign conventions to strengthen the international protection of migrants, and ensure that their basic rights are upheld in the countries they pass through. It could abandon a system of border enforcement which too often transforms EU neighbouring countries into Europe’s border guards, regardless of their whether they are able or willing to do this, and stop turning a blind eye to the often brutal and corrupt practices that have so often unfolded as a result.
It is also true, as Italy, Greece and Malta have all argued, that more countries could accept more asylum seekers instead of obliging EU ‘border countries’ to take on exclusive responsibility for screening, absorbing and – too often – excluding them.
Ultimately Europe needs to abandon an essentially repressive and exclusionary approach to border enforcement, which aims to make migrant journeys as harsh and as difficult as possible as an unwritten policy of deterrence, and which in effect accepts migrant deaths as the ‘collateral damage’ of border policies that are too often driven by fear, paranoia, selfishness and racism.
And as long as Europe continues to make it as difficult as possible for migrants to reach Europe through legal and safer means, there will always be those who are desperate and determined enough to risk everything to make the journey in some other way, and there will always be those who will seek to profit from these attempts.
Until that changes, people will continue to take their chances and some of them will die, and many of the governments that lament their deaths must bear a share of the responsibility for the transformation of the ocean that the Romans called Mare Nostrum – Our Sea – into a migrant graveyard.