Saturday, October 5, 2013

"The Mediterranean is a graveyard."

Ruined watchtowers dot the easternmost point of mainland Italy. 

A crippled ship weighed down with over 500 refugees caught fire and sank off the Italian island of Lampedusa. A hundred or so were rescued alive, thanks to the unstinting bravery of Lampedusa's fishermen. But divers have filmed horrifying underwater images of the sunken ship, still packed with dead bodies, above and below deck, perhaps over 300.

The tragedy has set off a needed debate on how Italy, and Europe, treat the thousands of migrants fleeing poverty and violence in Africa and the Middle East. In Lampedusa, which is 70 miles off the Tunisian Coast and which has the largest refugee relocation center in Italy, the people held a moving candlelight vigil in remembrance and solidarity. The refugee relocation camp on the island has space for 250 people. It currently houses 1,200. The majority of refugees, including unaccompanied minors, sleep on the open ground for want of space. Other refugee centers in Italy are also overcrowded, and are reluctant accept more. Asylum requests can take years to process.

Sunrise over San Giovanni in Laterano, the Pope's Basilica.
Pope Francis, who has been a strong voice in favor of making immigration policy more humane, is offering the use of monasteries to house the refugees. The xenophobic right is calling for the use of the military to intercept and prevent refugees from approaching Italian shores. (The European Union already has a military border interception force --but it is housed in Warsaw, far from the Mediterranean.) 

But the tremendous scale of this tragedy has forced the Italian government to take action. They are ordering other refugee centers in the country to take more of the load. And they are calling on the European Union to change some of its more dysfunctional policies.

By European regulations, asylum seekers must remain in the first European point where they apply for asylum. This is to prevent migrants from moving about Europe, but the consequence is to put a tremendous strain on a few countries: Italy, Greece, and Malta, in particular.

Italy is calling on other European countries to accept to receive their fair share refugees. Currently three European countries receive a disproportionate amount of resettled migrants: UK, France and Germany. The smaller countries accept almost zero.

The tragedy has also opened debate over Italy's own highly restrictive immigration laws. (A magistrate has already announced that the survivors of the tragedy will face prosecution under the harsh Bossi-Fini immigration law in the books.) The law makes legal immigration to the country almost impossible, thereby exacerbating the use of desperate and dangerous illegal routes. Italy's immigration levels are higher than those of the small, exclusionary countries of Europe, but very low compared to the big three.

The vast majority of those who died this week were from Eritrea and Somalia -- the former a poor one-party state, and the latter a famously failed one. Both were once Italian colonies. Eritrea officially became an Italian colony in 1890, after Italy invaded and occupied Ethiopia. Somalia followed later. In 1936, Eritrea and Italian Somaliland were declared provinces of Italian East Africa. In 1941, when the British expelled the Italians from the Horn of Africa, almost 10% of the population of Eritrea was Italian.

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