lampedusa coffins

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.

lampedusa boat

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.


  1. Sobering post. And generous not to mention Australia’s record here, which if added in would reveal another set of depressing statistics. To make us all feel better the new ‘Stop the Boats’ party in government has decided not to report asylum seeker boat incidents to the press or anyone else it seems anymore. Problem solved.

  2. It’d be interesting to know how Fortress Europe compares to border control with our trans-atlantic friends or even with the likes of Australia? I don’t know the facts but I was always under the impression our borders were far more liberal than other Western areas?

    • I don’t have detailed knowledge of US or Australian border control policies. My sense is that the similarities are more important than the differences.

  3. Michael Fugate

    Not to mention the US and its southern border or even Mexico and its southern border. If the money spent on walls, guards and drones were spent on organizations like the Peace Corps or even micro-lending, many people would no longer need to migrate to find work or education.

    “To make us all feel better the new ‘Stop the Boats’ party in government has decided not to report asylum seeker boat incidents to the press or anyone else it seems anymore. Problem solved.”

    A bit like not allowing the media film the caskets of dead soldiers coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan. Photographs are a great call to action and governments know this.

    • Have you forgotten that inside the fortress the EU has (in principle, at least) open borders? And are you suggesting that if Saudi Arabia enacts a policy it makes it morally acceptable?

      Ironically it is not an open border, but tight immigration controls, that lead people to move in large numbers and to settle. In the 1950s, when Britain had a virtual open door, many of the initial immigrants were single men and women who expected to return home after a short time working here. Once the government began discussing the possibility of controls in the late 50s migrants started arriving in larger numbers, to try and beat the closing door. And once the 1962 Immigration Act came into force they had no choice but to settle here and bring their families over, because they knew that if they left they might never get back in again. Much the same has been true of the impact of tighter US border controls on Mexican migrants. And much the same is true today of Fortress Europe.

      • caviarcommunist

        Saudi is not a moral exemplar but my point is all rich countries try to keep out the poor. If we lived in some libertarian world of no taxes i could understand the desire for no borders (not that that’s what I want). There are over a billion severely poor people in the world. We can’t possibly help all of them. And while there are iniquities in the global financial system, I can’t help feeling that what these people are fleeing from are often self induced through overpopulation, bad economic and political choices and cultural deformities. Whatever happened to ‘self’-determination?

        • The idea that immigration is about Europe ‘helping’ the poor is, to put it mildly, peculiar. Immigrants come to work. In so doing they better themselves. They also help the local economies. Without immigrants those economies would grind to a halt. So, it is equally possibly (if one were to be as glib as you are) to suggest that immigrants ‘help’ European countries. Yes, migrants may be fleeing from ‘overpopulation, bad economic and political choices and cultural deformities’. Tyranny, corruption and bad governance are problems in much of the ‘South’. This, however, is also a world in which the economic and political power of a handful of countries permits them to scoop up much of the world’s resources, distort the global economy, interfere in the internal workings of many countries (including by suppressing democracy movements and by propping up dictators where it suits them), etc. A balanced, nuanced view might help here. As for ‘self-determination’, what else does migration express than a determination to take control of one’s life?

      • caviarcommunist

        “In the 1950s, when Britain had a virtual open door, many of the initial immigrants were single men and women who expected to return home after a short time working here.” Because we did not have massive diaspora’s here at the time.

        • Quite. My point was that controls, in a fashion, helped create the diaspora, by leading people to come here in large numbers, to bring their families and to settle.

  4. caviarcommunist

    From the Der Spiegel article you link to: “Bierdel eventually brought reporters on to his ship as he sought to deliver the refugees to Sicily. He wanted to set an example against European policies that walled off refugees”. Clearly he had a political agenda.

  5. Isam al-Tal

    Indeed Europe is to blame for the death of some 20,000 would-be boat immigrants. My point is that blaming EU countries for this humanitarian catastrophe “out of historical context” simply adds insult to injury. Europe, the US et al being a by-product of its colonial history, not only produced the death boats but still subject the worlds they come from to its strategic interests, politically as well as economically. These countries cannot achieve any development simply because the West, so far and through its financial, military and intelligence means, still engineers the fate of nations under its influence to serve its economic and geo-political ends. And they won’t stop that until they are made to do it. Afghanistan and Iraq are good examples. It’s for the oppressed nations, whether by local tools or directly by Western colonial forces to upturn the tide and grasp their own fate with their own hands. Otherwise, to appeal to Europe’s, not to mention its US and Australian bastards, sense of responsibility and humanity is only misleading, to say the least.

    • Niels Christensen

      Your ‘post colonial’ stance doesn’t really grab the problems. The truths is that most of the countries where people are flying from are perfectly perfect to create a living for the inhabitants. The reason not. The reason not is the social and political structure of the countries.
      You seems to forget that millions and millions of europeans ( and a lot from Mena countries to) fled to America in the 19. and early 20. century because of the limitations of their own countries. But their luck / (or unluck) for many was that they had the chance to create a new society.
      Your constant mention of the west seems to forget that some of the worst capitalist in Africa at the moment are China and the Gulf countries. BUT old habits never die

        • Niels Christensen

          No, I aggree with you; but I’ve just lost my temper. But I would like to add two points.
          I did mention the immigration to USA ( Australia, Argentine …..) to emphasize that mass immigration was a very important part of the modernization process in Western Europe ( as was colonialism); secondly when I postulated that african countries are rich enough, it wasn’t my intention to be culturally arrogant. On the contrary. But I do believe that the modernization process in Africa will take a long time and it will be a rough ride. From the experience made in Western Europe, there isn’t any shortcuts. One of my favorite books is Eugen Weber’s From Peasants into Frenchmen which document how difficult and all encompassing the project is. People often forget, when they try to transform finished western models to Africa, that when they were developed in Western Europe it was through violent political fights and later by use of extensive state power. There was no minority protection rules at that point !
          – Thanks for your blog

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