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The shadow of Lampedusa: Counting the cost of a European tragedy


As a stretch of land across the Mediterranean Sea, Italy is continuously facing the arrival of unseaworthy boats carrying migrants – men, women and children trying to leave behind war and poverty to reach Europe.

Most of those on board would have the right to asylum, but for many the journey ends when they’re barely within sight of Italy: news of migrants dying on their way to Europe are a sad routine. And the EU is in no rush to do anything to help solve what it apparently thinks of as only Italy’s problem.

On October 3rd last year, 366 migrants drowned off the coast of Lampedusa, an island half-way between Sicily and the North African coast. The international outcry that followed prompted Italy to launch a massive search-and-rescue effort called Operation Mare Nostrum. A number of men, ships and helicopters were used to track down traffickers, to escort any intercepted boat of migrants to the nearest safe port and to provide quick medical assistance to whoever may need it.

So far this year, Operation Mare Nostrum has rescued 50,000 migrants – not without a price. The operation’s cost, at first estimated to be around €1.5m a month, quickly soared to €9.5m each month. In a year, this adds up to €114m, quite a strain for a country that was hit so hard by the recession.

While migrants attempt to reach Italy first due to its position in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, Italy isn’t usually their final destination: it was estimated that two thirds of migrants who arrive in Italy leave for other countries. It’s Europe that they risk their lives to reach. It would seem logical to assume, then, the issue of migrants in the Mediterranean Sea is a European issue that should be tackled by a coordinated action, with funds coming from all countries in the EU.

As if.

As Italy spends €9.5m a month to keep Operation Mare Nostrum running, Europe contributes around €9m – a year. That’s not a typo: the EU “contributes” to the search-and-rescue effort to save as many migrants as possible in the Mediterranean Sea with less than a twelfth of the operation’s cost. This has led Italian officials to complain that the EU is “not helping enough”. A polite way of saying that the EU is not helping, at all.

Italy’s Prime Minister Matteo Renzi was more direct, going as far as saying that Italy will leave the EU if its members don’t help with the costs of Operation Mare Nostrum. His demands for Mare Nostrum to be taken over by the EU and incorporated into Frontex – EU’s border patrol body – in order to share the cost, however, fell on deaf ears. Apparently, that of migrants risking their lives at sea while trying to reach Europe is Italy’s problem alone.

The arguments so far made to defend this decision defy logic. Several countries, such as Germany, argue that Italy should face the problem on its own because they deal with far more asylum-seekers than Italy does. While that is true, it seems hardly pertinent to the problem at hand: the fact remains that no other European country has to run a humanitarian naval operation in any way comparable to Operation Mare Nostrum.

Taking absolutely no part in the rescue effort doesn’t keep the EU from wailing whenever another tragedy involving migrants at sea makes it to the news. A regular occurrence, because even Operation Mare Nostrum is not enough to save everyone. On June 30th, 30 migrants suffocated in a boat as they were forcibly kept below the deck of the fishing boat on which they were trying to reach the Italian coast. On July 2nd, 70 migrants were lost at sea in yet another incident. By the time this goes online, more stories like these will probably make it to the headlines. The EU will wail about it, no doubt – before proceeding to do absolutely nothing. Italy’s problem. We already have so many asylum-seekers to deal with, people. Buzz off.

The most appalling aspect of the issue is that a great part of the migrants who leave on boats for Europe do qualify for asylum – only that they have to risk their lives for what should be their right. And a right is not something you may only receive if lucky enough not to die at sea first, after having put your life in the hands of traffickers – thus fuelling the trade of human lives across the Mediterranean Sea.

Despite its prominence amongst the arguments thrown back and forth between Italy and the EU as Italy starts its presidency, it’s noteworthy how no one seems to be considering the idea of working together to create humanitarian corridors across the Mediterranean Sea. Not only would that give migrants a safe route, thus allowing asylum-seekers to apply for it without risking their lives – it would also deal a blow to the traffickers Operation Mare Nostrum is seeking to stop.

But then again, migrants dying in the Mediterranean Sea? That’s Italy’s problem alone.

By Alessandra Pacelli

Photo: UNESCO

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