The Lampedusa boat sinking was no accident
The EU needs a new approach to migrants – preventable tragedies such as this have made the Mediterranean a graveyard for those seeking a better life abroad
The last thing you can call these tragedies is fatal accidents.
The umpteenth tragedy involving African migrants off the tiny island of Lampedusa could and should have been prevented, like the countless other deaths that have occurred over the last years in those waters. Nearly 20,000 people have died since 1988 along southern Europeanborders, making the Mediterranean a true graveyard for migrants.
Pope Francis talked about “shame”, but he didn’t say who should be ashamed, who’s to blame for this. Can we say it is just the traffickers?
By coincidence, this week the UN is holding a high-level dialogue on international migration and development, in New York. The slogan of the meeting is “making migration work” but that sounds like a rather dullwishful thinking, because each death, across each border, from Europe to the US to Australia, shows that the current migration and asylum policies do not work at all.
The international community should admit the inadequacy of what is a unilateral, temporary and often repressive approach to mobility. The migration question has certainly not been resolved by national governments militarising borders further or criminalising undocumented immigrants.
Such policies have been particularly harsh in Italy, where rightwing politicians have built their identity and electoral success on fear of foreigners. In 2009 the Berlusconi administration, with xenophobic allies from the Northern League, started a policy of push-backs of people in need of protection, a measure condemned by the UN and by the European court of human rights in Strasbourg. That government went on signing agreements with Muammar Gaddafi to prevent African migrants fleeing Libya, well aware of the inhuman conditions suffered by Africans in Libyan detention centres.
In 2008 the so-called “security package” law turned undocumented migrants into criminals as well as their traffickers. Apparently all those measures have ended up encouraging trafficking by criminal organisations, while discouraging open water rescue for fishermen, who fear being accused of aiding and abetting. Three years on, those regulations are still in force, despite the fact that two governments have followed.
“Migration laws are still based on a closed-off borders policy that makes legal entry almost impossible,” says Lorenzo Trucco, president of Asgi, the Italian lawyers’ advocacy group for migrants’ rights.
Yet the current deputy prime minister, Angelino Alfano, a likely ideological successor to Berlusconi, headed to Lampedusa and hypocritically announced a national day of mourning. He did not dare question Italy’s immigration law and tried to shift the blame on Europe’s failing asylum system. Northern League politicians, now in opposition, shamelessly accused two leading migrants’ rights advocates of encouraging illegal entry. However, anti-immigrant Italian politicians are not the only ones at fault.
Cecilia Malmström, European commissioner for home affairs, has vowed Europe will step up its effort to prevent these tragedies and took the opportunity to promote the Eurosur project and its “smart borders” policy. The €340m project aims to track and identify small vessels at sea, but actually the whole idea is based on the “externalisation” of the borders, with some hi-tech smart tools and further patrolling by the European border agency Frontex.
It remains to be seen in what ways these projects are different from the one Malmström started with Gaddafi in 2010. That allocated €50m to ensure greater control of the southern border of Libya in the desert, out of sight of Europe.
So why do Eurocrats keep investing in security measures? Why don’t they focus on a shared asylum policy, on serious multilateral agreements between transit and receiving countries, on building search-and-rescue capacity in the Mediterranean, on the full respect of the right to international protection?
Europe cannot go on sealing its borders and pretending not to see what’s going on in the south, especially in still-troubled Northern Africa, and in a continent with growing poverty, along with a food and health crisis. Increasing social conflicts inevitably result in harsher repression by authoritarian regimes and therefore in further asylum-seekers, just like the Eritrean young men and women who drowned in Lampedusa.