For decades now, the tiny island of Lampedusa (Italy), a little over one-hundred kilometers from Tunisia and nearly twice that distance from the Italian coast, has been a primary destination for (mostly) African migrants attempting to reach the European Union and the rest of the European continent. With little baggage other than their hopes, they usually brave the strong winds, currents, and haphazard travelling vessels in search of a higher chance of survival and, perhaps, even a decent life, once in “fortress Europe”.
Many of the people desperate enough to attempt to reach the Italian island know that they have little chance of being granted asylum once reaching it. Even after having reached the European Union securing asylum is no easy task, as they must prove that their lives are in danger in their home nations. As such political refugees are often given the precedence, also because of their image-building status for the governments that may accept them, while socio-economic refugees are almost always summarily repatriated – they are politically inconvenient.
Reaching land alive is in itself an uncertainty: in the past two decades refugee migrants have been dying in the Mediterranean sea attempting to reach European shores at an average rate of over 1,000 a year. In 2011 over sixty migrants were left to slowly die at sea due to unwillingness of other vessels to rescue them, including European authorities who had been made aware of their positions and NATO ships in the area. Despite the verbal condemnations of the Council of Europe of their “catalogue of failures” and a promise of a drastic change in European migration policies, such empty words were quickly forgotten and never maintained. Perhaps, if they had, the island of Lampedusa would have not witnessed its most recent catastrophe.
On October 3rd, 2013, a twenty-meter vessel carrying between 521 and 545 people, mostly Eritreans, caught on fire off the shore of the tiny Sicilian island. Two commercial fishing vessels received a distress call but ignored it, failing to adhere to naval tradition and international law. As the fire propagated on the twenty-meter fishing boat and it began to sink, the boat also capsized. The people of Lampedusa thus took it upon themselves to get engaged in rescue efforts as best they could but not before 366 people had lost their lives, including nine children, and two dozens are still suspected missing.
In recent years, the task of reaching Europe has only become more arduous for economic refugees. Through the supranational institutions and mechanisms of the European Union, countries have found ways to cooperate in patrolling their borders to prevent the free flow of people towards them, as well as to give single states the ability to completely disavow any responsibility on the matter. Such examples include the establishment of a coordinated radar detection system that would allow supranational police forces to turn back incoming vessels before they reach territorial waters and as such making states liable for their “processing”, a European Gendarmerie Force to patrol Europe’s borders, and the expansion of scope, militarization, and power of the already existing Frontex (the European Union’s Border Management Agency).
This initiative would eliminate the current national bodies of gendarmery (such as the Italian Carabinieri and the Dutch Marachusse) in Europe, and re-incorporate them in a supranational para-military police force. Not surprisingly the gendarmery forces of the European nations are largely charged with immigration-related duties such as seeking, arresting, processing and deporting “illegal” migrants. Adding insult to the already injurious situation of the migrants seeking asylum of a better life in the European Union, this police force will have virtual impunity and won’t be prosecutable for any crime or malpractice they commit in the exercise of their activities. As if the current treatment of refugees and asylum seekers wasn’t bad enough, imagine what potential is has to become when supervised by an non-prosecutable and completely immune supranational police force – it is a recipe for disaster.
Nobel Prize for Hypocrisy
Scrutinizing and decrying the abysmal policy of the European Union however cannot be undertaken on its own. Often such refrain, as previously mentioned, is utilized to shift responsibility from the equally (and perhaps primarily) culpable nation states and a convenient political scapegoat (“it’s European policy, it’s out of our hands). In my recent return to my home-country of Italy, much of the popular and mainstream media discourse has been externalizing the blame to the EU, and has not really prompted a serious examination of conscience by the Italian people and government pertaining their immigration policies. As a matter of fact many Italians are under the impression that, far from the recent tragedy in Lampedusa being the fault of their government, they should be praised for being the only nation to even have given “illegal” migrants a state funeral. There has been hardly any consideration for the living, however. Italian hypocrisy has gone as far as some MPs proposing the island of Lampedusa to be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize – a move that reeks of self-absolution and white washing of the atrocities and catastrophes that migrants are subject to on a daily basis.
In fact, the refugees still held in Lampedusa are suffering daily mistreatment and humiliation that could be considered cruel and unusual punishment. Two weeks ago a video surfaced displaying such treatment – men are ordered to publicly undress completely in the cold winter air (yes, Lampedusa can get cold during winter), and sprayed with high-pressure water before being left outdoors a while longer before medical examinations. In Italy such images have had a powerful effect as they are a reminder of a dark chapter of the nation’s history, where an emigration of biblical proportions resulted in millions of Italians arriving on Ellis Island, in the United States. Although not nearly as demeaning as what the refugees in Lampedusa undergo on a regular basis, we were humiliated by, and decried, the primitive physical examinations intended to discover which infections diseases we were carrying. Only, at the time, it as easier to be outraged as we were the victims.
Ruben Rosenberg Colorni