'Aren't We Human Beings?' One Year After the Lampedusa Refugee Tragedy

When over 300 refugees drowned off the coast of Italy last October, the incident prompted widespread outcry and promises to save more lives. But 12 months later, the fates of the survivors show just how broken Europe's refugee system really is.


By Juliane von Mittelstaedt and

A few weeks ago, Tadese Fisah returned to Lampedusa to thank the fisherman who had saved his life. He was shaking when he stepped onto the island, Fisah says. When he saw the shipwrecks and the sea, the images all came back to him, images of women crying for help and of tangled bodies.

Fisah, who is from Eritrea, knew nothing about the man who pulled him out of the water one year ago except his name: Costantino Baratta. He asked some passersby, who sent him to the harbor. There, he was told that Baratta was at sea, so Fisah waited. After a few hours, the fisherman, a powerful man in his mid-50s, returned to port and tied up his boat. Fisah walked up to the man timidly, not knowing what to say. But Baratta understood him nevertheless. With tears in their eyes, the two men embraced.

On the morning of Oct. 3, 2013, Baratta saved 12 people while the coast guard did nothing. Although he and other fishermen recovered 155 people altogether, 366 others drowned, only 800 meters (2,625 feet) from Europe. Most were from Eritrea.

Fisah was sleeping that night as the lights of Lampedusa approached on the horizon. He was still asleep when, in an effort to signal that the boat was in distress, the captain set fire to a sheet soaked in gasoline. The burning sheet fell to the deck, and the passengers began to panic. That was when Fisah woke up.

The boat began listing to starboard. He called for his brother, but couldn't see him. "Hurry up! Jump!" someone shouted, and Fisah jumped. He couldn't swim, but he flapped his arms enough to stay afloat. People grabbed onto him, pushing him down, but he somehow managed to reach the surface again.

Next to Fisah, Eritrean Tsegazi Hadish also jumped into the water, holding his wife Selina in his arms. As the waves splashed in their faces, Hadish momentarily lost consciousness. When he came to, he was drifting alone. He dove underwater, but all he could see were dead bodies. His fellow Eritrean Berhane Yoboyo was lying below the deck when the boat capsized. People fell on top of him and grabbed onto him. The boat was already sinking by the time he managed to extricate himself.

Within a few minutes, the boat had sunk into the sea, and soon afterwards most of the passengers had disappeared. Almost all the women and children on board were dead, but the three men survived; the fishermen pulled them out of the water several hours later.

Revealing Trajectories

It was the biggest accident of its kind -- at least until early September of this year, when 500 refugees died in a shipwreck near Malta. But what happened on Oct. 3 a year ago wasn't just an accident, it was the result of Europe's contradictory approach to immigration.

After the accident, politicians traveled to the island and said that they would never forget the sight of the many coffins, promising assistance to the 155 survivors as well as expedited naturalization and psychological counseling. They also promised more humane immigration laws and better protection for those who would hazard the journey in the future. It sounded as if something were truly about to change.

The Italian government announced the Mare Nostrum operation, designed to help refugees who are already in international waters. But it was a doubled-edged promise: Although it made the passage safer, it also encouraged more refugees to make the trip -- on even more dilapidated ships. More than 100,000 people have landed on Italian shores this year, most of them rescued when their vessels were in distress. Over 2,500 have died.

But now even the rescue mission is to be terminated because it costs €9 million ($11.4 million) a year and the Italian government no longer wants to pay. This will lead to riskier crossings, and even more deaths. And no one knows what to do with all the survivors, who arrive every day. The EU is helpless as it adheres to the Dublin Regulation -- which states that a refugee must apply for asylum in the EU country in which he or she first arrives. The policy, however, has long since been invalidated by reality.

The trajectory of the Oct. 3 shipwreck survivors shows how absurd and inhumane this immigration policy is. They all fled for similar reasons, most from Eritrea and a few from Somalia, and had no belongings when they arrived in Lampedusa. Today, the 155 survivors are now scattered across Europe. Some were granted asylum, others have been provisionally allowed to stay and a few were deported. Only one of them, it would seem, Tadese Fisah, has remained in Italy, their country of arrival.

A Lost Brother

A year after being rescued, Fisah is living in the Salaam Palace, or Palace of Peace. It's what refugees call the abandoned university building on the outskirts of Rome where they have been squatting for the last eight years. It isn't a palace but a pile of concrete with broken windows, mattresses, plywood and other debris are piled in front of the entrance. The building is home to about 1,600 people, the ones who don't have the money to continue traveling north, which is where almost all refugees want to go.

Hardly anyone wants to stay in Italy, even though the country approved 64 percent of asylum applications last year, more than twice the European Union average. Italy's refugee camps are overcrowded, forcing thousands of immigrants to live in the streets. Very few of these immigrants are working legally or receiving medical care, which is why they want to leave Italy for countries like Germany. That's a goal Italy is helping them achieve: More than a quarter of the refugees are not registered by the Italians, enabling them to apply for asylum wherever they choose -- or wherever they are arrested.

But Fisah wasn't part of that group, which is why he is now telling his story in front of the "palace," clutching a container of milk surrounded by flies. His three-year journey began in Eritrea, where he worked as a photographer. His brother Mengsteab, who was three years younger, wanted to become a teacher. But the regime accused them of supporting the opposition, so the brothers fled to Ethiopia and, from there, crossed Sudan and entered Libya. At the beginning of their journey, the brothers made a promise to each other: "No matter what happens, we stay together."

But Fisah lost his brother when the boat sank. After his rescue, he was taken to a hospital in Sicily where, after 10 days, police officers picked him up and took him to the police station. They took his fingerprints and told him to get out. "They treated me like a criminal," says Fisah. After living on the street in Palermo for a week, he went to Rome in early November, where he ended up in the Salaam Palace.

He tried to find his brother, but Mengsteab's mobile phone didn't ring when he tried to call it. "I was frantic. I didn't know what had happened to him, whether he had even survived the disaster." After a while he came to believe that his brother was dead.

Because the "palace" isn't the kind of place where people stay long, Fisah stowed away on a train to Stockholm in December. He applied for asylum in Sweden but was rejected. Fisah had been unlucky: Italy had fed his fingerprints into the Eurodac database. Some who flee to the north burn their fingertips, or they wait for two years until the prints are deleted from the database. The Swedes treated him as a Dublin case and sent him back to Italy.

Since March, he has again been living in the Salaam Palace outside Rome. Once a day, he takes the bus into the city to pick up food packages from the Caritas charity.

In German Limbo

Although his journey was shorter, Tsegazi Hadish has made it further than Fisah. He is now living in a home for asylum applicants in Seevetal, a town in the northern German state of Lower Saxony. He has applied for asylum and would like to work, but he is not allowed to. "I'm condemned to doing nothing," says Hadish. Although he is now in a safe place, the days and hours drag along. He passes the time watching television; sometimes he rides a bicycle into town.

Hadish has hollow cheeks and tired-looking eyes. He crouches on his bed in a container home, his face buried in his hands. He says that he wishes he had never made the trip. "Why did I get on that boat?" he asks. "Why did Selina have to die?"

Hadish and Selina grew up together in a village in southern Eritrea and they were married when he was 23 and Selina was 18. Then Hadish was drafted into life-long military service, which is more like forced labor than army duty. After three years, he and Selina left their country, and when they arrived in the Libyan city of Tripoli months later, they were both exhausted and relieved. "I thought at the time that we had survived the worst," says Hadish. But then came the real hell.

After his rescue, Hadish was taken to the overcrowded reception center in Lampedusa. When the police asked him to identify Selina, he clicked through the photos of the dead until he saw the swollen body of his wife. He collapsed at the sight. Since then, he sees the same images again and again, every night, of children thrashing around in panic and bodies floating in the water.

Italy promised a state funeral and that those who had drowned would be symbolically declared Italian citizens. But then the coffins were taken to Sicily, the state funeral never materialized, and most of the bodies were buried quietly and in secret, with only numbers marking the graves. Hadish was not even permitted to attend the funeral service, and he still doesn't know where his wife was buried.

After six weeks in Lampedusa, he and the other survivors were flown to Rome, where the mayor met them at the airport. He too promised that he would personally attend to their needs. But after one night in a hotel room provided, Hadish was informed that he was on his own. Like almost all the refugees seeking to travel northward, he went to Milan, where he got into a trafficker's car. He arrived in the Swiss capital Bern a few days before Christmas. But even though an attorney had submitted an evaluation stating that Hadish was suicidal, Swiss authorities deported him to Italy six months later.

He was back in Milan, sleeping in parks and eating garbage. "I couldn't have survived in Italy," he says. He decided to try again and paid a trafficker to take him to Sweden. But the police arrested Hadish just outside the Bavarian town of Rosenheim and took him to a detention center in Munich. He was later transferred to Friedland in Lower Saxony, and he has been in Seevetal, outside Hamburg, since late July. The immigration authorities are currently reviewing his asylum application, but it will most likely send him back to Italy, as the Swiss authorities did before.

What happens then? Rain is drumming down on the roof of the housing container in Seevetal. Hadish walks over to the window. "Why do you Europeans do this to us?" he asks, shaking his head. "Aren't we human beings?"

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peskyvera 10/09/2014
If all the industrial nations, mainly in the West, would stop exploiting and pillaging African nations, perhaps all these refugees would have no need to leave. With jobs at home they certainly would prefer to stay among their own folks. But as usual, wherever the West meddles trouble follows.
samuel.stevenson 10/10/2014
Yes they are human beings. But they are not human beings that Germany bears a responsibility to care for. Most so-called asylum seekers are in fact economic migrants, and they have no natural right to help themselves to German jobs or benefits.
nsmith 10/11/2014
Of course, Asylum-seekers are humans...But the real tragedy is that now there are too many...and how is it possible to accommodate them all?---Simple Answer: as long as war rages across great swaths of this world, mass-migration will continue to be a force to be contended with...And just what can be done, you ask???...How about Peace??...Problem: not such a simple solution...Back to the drawing -board.
nsmith 10/14/2014
4. @peskyvera10/09/2014
Again, the same virulent anti-West diatribe, and again the reminder that to date it is CHINA that is exploiting and pillaging the African continent....and while doing so, they aren't exactly making it possible for Africans to "stay at home among their own folks".... So maybe think about it --- and then maybe do a bit more research before jumping to the same conclusions....again.
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