Europe’s passive attitude towards immigration: Lampedusa’s tragedy a turning point?

, by Julia Cova

Europe's passive attitude towards immigration: Lampedusa's tragedy a turning point?

The tragic shipwreck off Lampedusa that has taken 359 lives raises numerous issues. The continuous flow of migrants towards Europe’s southern countries is a heavy burden on the crisis- ridden nations and causes innocent victims. The governments fail to respond in an adequate manner mostly because the responsibility is up until now not shared by member states of the EU.

On October 3rd Lampedusa’s inhabitants see yet another misfortune unroll on their idyllic beaches on which, according to UN reports, this year alone, 30,000 immigrants and asylum seekers have disembarked. A boat with more than 500 men, women and children on board, capsized and sank after a fire was lit upon it in order to attract attention. 359 bodies have been recovered from the wreck but it is plausible that the real number of victims is even higher. The passengers mostly came from Eritrea and Somalia, both countries affected by poverty, repression and violence.

Survivors state that their main objective is not seeking refuge in one particular country, but finding a place where security, humanitarian aid and future opportunities are offered. Many east Africans set their hopes high on Europe passing through transit countries such as Libya, Tunisia and Egypt. When arriving in the transit countries, especially in Libya, they are often abused, imprisoned without charge or left to their own devices, jobless, until they find enough money to pay their boat journey to Europe. The disillusioned and desperate migrants become easy prey for smugglers and traffickers that offer a ticket to freedom, generally for 1,600 $. They pay and embark on a perilous journey towards a small Sicilian island, Lampedusa, on carcasses of vessels that often do not even manage to bring the passengers to their destination.

The position of Lampedusa renders it a tantalizing destination for African migrants; other popular destinations include Malta, Spain, Cyprus and Greece. Sadly, small islands such as Lampedusa, do not have the means to handle heavy flows of refugees. In 2011 the island’s native population was out numbered 6,500 to 6,300 by unemployed immigrants. The facilities on the island are scarce and cannot cope with the situation; in fact the reception centre is overflowing and hosts 2,000 people although the maximum capacity is of 850. Other structures could be used productively as the former NATO military base, which until 1994 was manned by the US Coast Guard and served for the LORAN radio navigation system, which is partly unused today.

To make things even more difficult the Italian government has shown itself unable to deal with the issue;, on the contrary, it has pushed for paranoid policies and actions. As pointed out during the European Parliament’s plenary session of 23rd of October, countries should review measures that make people who assist illegal immigrants in danger punishable. The indirect reference to the Bossi-Fini law did not pass unobserved. In fact, Lampedusa’s fishermen risk criminal prosecution for aiding and abetting illegal immigration. On the day of the tragedy three fishing-boats reportedly passed the horror scene without taking action., Pope Francis commented on the mishap during the “Pacem in Terris” Conference: ‘Vergogna - è una vergogna!’. Disgrace – It is a disgrace. And right he is.

Disgraceful is also the attitude towards those who have survived. Their perspectives are grim as most of the immigrants are sent back home because labelled as migrants for economic purposes and are not classified fit for the refugee status. The short period of time that they do get to stay in a European country, is spent in poorly equipped reception centres, sometime sleeping in the open air. Structural problems can be forgiven but heartless actions cannot. Inhumane scenes were witnessed the day of the state funeral given for the victims. For security reasons, survivors of the shipwreck were not allowed to take the ferry from Lampedusa to Agrigento where the funeral was held. A father of three who had lost all his children and his wife in a doomed attempt at finding security was not allowed to say his last goodbyes.

Italian minister of interior Angelino Alfano expressed the hope that Lampedusa’s disaster would serve as an eye-opener for Europe as it has, until now, had a passive attitude towards the issue, hiding rather than facing it and added that this problem should be tackled with a European action plan. After Lampedusa’s tragedy made international headlines, the insistent calls for action by influential people and the outraged reaction of the population, the European Union has decided to discuss and find common solutions for the issue. On October 9th the President of the European Commission Barroso, during his visit to Lampedusa, announced that the European Commission is willing to aid refugees in Italy through the funding of €30 million that should be available before the end of 2013.

On October 23rd the European Parliament suggested various measures, during its’ plenary session, regarding illegal immigration. In view of the EU Summit (Oct. 24-25) it pushed for: the halt of human traffickers, humanitarian aid to arriving immigrants and search-and-rescue missions in the Mediterranean. It also urged for more funds to European Agencies such as FRONTEX and the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) in order for them to help member states with the flow of immigrants.

During the EU Summit, the head of states broadly discussed digital economy, economic and social policy focusing on youth unemployment and the economic and monetary union, the Eastern Partnership Summit, and finally, with very little time consecrated to it, the Lampedusa tragedy. The European Council calls for closer cooperation with the transit countries and the countries of origin and with international organisations as the UNHCR and the International Organisation of Migration in the fight against human trafficking and to address the problem at the root. In its effort to help countries of origin the EU wants to enhance development support. In order to prevent such tragedies from happening the Council suggests strengthening Frontex’s activities in the Mediterranean and implementing the new European Boarder Surveillance System (EUROSUR).

One slow, dragged step at a time the issue is being tackled. Sadly, it has taken a huge number of victims to raise awareness of a problem that has existed for a long period of time and has been intensified by the Arab Spring. It is also unclear if the new surveillance system and the Frontex activities will be a tool of solidarity and aid, or if it will be used as a defensive barrier to repress the flows of migrants. Europe has the moral duty to prevent the loss of human lives through the means at its disposition and can no longer turn away from its fears.

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