Death in the Mediterranean The Tragedy of Europe's Boat People

Hundreds of people died last week when a boat carrying migrants capsized off the coast of Libya. It is just the latest incident in an ongoing human tragedy, which anti-immigration measures are only making worse.

It's the same type of sand, perhaps even the very same sand. The beaches between Syracuse and Gela are strewn with it, a slightly reddish and extremely fine desert sand. The refugees who have survived the perilous journey from the Libyan Sahara to the shores of the Italian island of Sicily are all familiar with this sand. They know how it tastes and how it stings the lungs when inhaled.

"They walked by here, and one of them waved to me," said Carmelo Barbagallo, who runs La Giara, a restaurant on the quay of the fishing port of Portopalo. He was there when 249 boat people landed on the southernmost point of Sicily last Monday. They were wearing worn-out, second-hand ski jackets, and their pockets still contained sand from the desert crossing and the camps in the Sahara. "Three pregnant women were among them," said Barbagallo.

He stands at the harbor where three boats have been moored, painted many times over with idyllic scenes, symbols of good fortune and praises to Allah. "Nobody understands how they made it this far, with no lights on board and no food," he says. "They must be so desperate that they've lost their fear of death."

This boat also came from Libya, he says, pointing to another vessel. Just like the one that was washed ashore a few hours later, 70 kilometers (44 miles) to the west in Scoglitti, with 165 people on board. Just like the one that had capsized near the Libyan coast a few hours earlier, after setting off in stormy seas west of Tripoli. Twenty survivors were found floating among the bodies of their drowned fellow passengers.

The International Organization for Migration estimates that at least 230 people drowned in the incident, including 69 women and two children. Roughly 100 bodies have been recovered so far. The rest have found a watery grave in the cemetery on Europe's doorstep which is called the Mediterranean.

A second fishing boat with 357 people on board was rescued shortly before capsizing by a Neapolitan tugboat, the Asso 22, and towed back to Tripoli. The captain of the Asso 22 spoke of the "apocalyptic scene" that awaited him as hundreds of figures, holding on to each other for dear life and shouting for help, suddenly appeared in his spotlights.

A Desperate Minority

The wind carries more than just sand from the Sahara to Sicily. It has blown people northwards since ancient times. St. Paul was shipwrecked on the shores of Malta and legend has it that Mary Magdalene was carried to Provence. Since 1988, nearly 14,000 people have died fleeing to Europe. They were thrown overboard, beaten to death -- or they simply died of thirst. And that is only the official number of registered deaths.

There is a geopolitical element behind all the images of shipwrecked refugees suffering from severe exhaustion and exposure. Politicians in Europe's capitals also decide on the course taken and the freight transported by the human smugglers. It has to do with natural gas, oil and uranium.

Graphic: Refugee routes to Europe

Graphic: Refugee routes to Europe

In late March, for instance, French President Nicolas Sarkozy made a working visit to Niger and assured the French nuclear technologies giant Areva that it would remain a strategic partner in uranium production until the year 2030. It is also this uranium that fills the boats. "Thousands of young men from Niger are fleeing the war over control of the uranium deposits," says Laurence Hart from the International Organization for Migration, "and they are all flocking to Libya."

In August 2008, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi signed a friendship pact with Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. "We will receive more gas and oil from Libya and fewer illegal immigrants," said Berlusconi at the time. He also agreed to pay $5 billion (€3.73 billion) as compensation for the years when Libya was ruled as an Italian colony. Italian defense contractor Finmeccanica will also develop a satellite system so Libya can monitor the flow of refugees.

But the vast majority of illegal immigrants enter Italy perfectly legally. They arrive by plane, enter the country on a tourist visa and go into hiding shortly thereafter. The boat refugees are a minority of desperate individuals who would stand little chance of being admitted by a consulate.

Solving 'Africa's Problems'

Frontex, the European Union agency for external border security, is based in Warsaw. Germany supports its "Hera" and "Nautilus" programs. The idea is to stop refugees long before they reach EU borders. In 2004, then-German Interior Minister Otto Schily suggested using EU funds to finance camps for asylum seekers in North Africa. "Africa's problems have to be solved in Africa," he said.

To curb the influx of refugees, the Interior Ministry in Rome has equipped Egypt and Tunisia with coastguard boats, all-terrain vehicles, infrared binoculars and police equipment, as well as organizing training. Libya, for its part, announced in January 2008 that it would destroy the shanties and tent cities on its territory and immediately round up all illegal aliens in Libya for expulsion. Since Gadhafi was elected president of the African Union last February, this zeal has apparently abated somewhat.

Aid organizations have reported deportations into the desert and prison camps in Libya and Senegal where inmates are brutally beaten and raped, and children barely survive on a starvation diet. For those who have escaped from these camps, the nighttime crossing of the Mediterranean in a fishing boat probably seems somewhat less harrowing. In any case, the number of boat people who landed in Italy rose sharply last year to 36,952.

This week a preliminary detachment of the Italian police force will travel to Libya to prepare the logistics for joint patrols with a total of six ships. This will be the first time that border guards from an EU country will be active in the territorial waters of Libya. Anyone apprehended will be placed in a Libyan deportation camp -- without the possibility, guaranteed by the Italian constitution, of applying for asylum.

Interior Minister Roberto Maroni of the right-wing populist Northern League party has said that illegal immigration from Libya will end as soon as the patrols start on May 15. Nothing could be more uncertain. What is clear, however, is that, as more stringent controls are introduced, the smugglers choose more hazardous routes -- and more people lose their lives trying to enter Europe.

Ever since Frontex successfully blocked the passage from Senegal to the Canary Islands, refugees have had to take a detour via the Sahara and Libya. And since the May 15 date was announced, the human smugglers in Libya have been rushing to send out their boats, in all kinds of weather, and so overloaded with passengers that they are on the verge of sinking.

A War between Poor People

Hussein Gopalgong, 24, an agricultural student from Bangladesh, has it all behind him. All wrapped up in his polar ski jacket like an Arctic explorer, he now stands at the gate of the Cassibile refugee camp south of Syracuse. He is one of the lucky ones who made it onto Italian soil. He paid $1,000 for his passage from Tripoli across the sea, his application for asylum is under review, and he has been issued new identification papers by the Italian authorities. He can begin a new life.

Next to him stands Tonino, 47, the manager of the Magliocco & Sons warehouse next door, a man with a carefully groomed, gray pointed beard. Tonino says what all Italians think, as he puts it. He speaks of diseases that have been introduced, tuberculosis and AIDS, and of the alleged dolce vita led by the camp residents, of their arrogance, their shady deals, and the money that they get by the shovel load. "But when you open your mouth, right away you're a racist," he says. "Nobody says anything, not the politicians, the media, the judges. There must be a reason for this, right?"

Gopalgong listens politely. His Italian is still rudimentary.

"They know the laws better than people like us. And when their application for asylum is rejected, they take off into the bushes. There!" Tonino points to the other side of the railway embankment where, underneath a large redcurrant bush, a shack made of tarpaulin and boards can be seen. The sight of this hovel appears to soften his tone. "They're poor bastards. Just like us," says Tonino.

In Sicily they know what it's like to be forced to seek a new life elsewhere. This morning's edition of the Gazzetta del Sud reported that the number of people emigrating from Ragusa province has risen again. "The specter of emigration has returned," reads the headline.

"If it comes to a war here, it will be a war between us poor people, like always," says Tonino. "That's how it is, right?"

Gopalgong just smiles from under the fur hood of his coat and nods tentatively. He seems incredibly happy just to be here.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen


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