Migrants: the foundering and the fear

Foundering is a dear verb in the Italian culture; the 18th century poet Giacomo Leopardi made use of it to define the mind’s journey across the boundless spaces of time, and inside the universe that everyone brings within himself. A pinnacle out of reach in the European poetry. But ours is not an epoch for literature: now, foundering, for us Italians, has got the harsh meaning of a limping ship across the Sicily Channel; of men at the mercy of the sea; of waters that swallow people. It is a daily dispatch that has been going on for years: we read it on newspapers, we listen to it on the radio, it is witnessed on TV. On social media we can watch images of floating heads, and arms that reach out babies for the rescuers’ hands. We are daily virtual bystanders of transfers, from boats made of decaying wood or thin rubber, onto the iron decks of cargo vessels or navy ships.

Hour by hour there is the count of migrants, sitting on docks, or standing against the walls of shelters. Every day we register, willing or not, the numbers of those who arrive: dozens, hundreds, thousands of people who left from the belly of far regions, and got ashore in Italian harbors; bastions of a dream called Europe, away from the nightmare of wars, or a miserable life. But we register also much colder numbers: the drowned people under the Mediterranean waves. In the best cases their bodies are recovered and put into sacks, their end documented. Otherwise, they remain nameless visions, passed down to us by the survivors. We can’t do anything but place these memories on the trembling chessboard of our identity, of men and women, of family members, of Italian citizens, and European citizens. Our adversary, in its different shapes, is fear.

Fear of what we could lose: the balance of the Italian society, already precarious and impoverished, under the hit of this migrants supply-chain via sea, which has been active for more than a decade.

Fear of what we should tolerate: the presence, immediate and exponential, of people different from us, by language, culture, customs, history. People to insert into a labor market already plagued by such a hard unemployment crisis.

Fear of what we wouldn’t like to become: insensitive to a man who risks to shipwreck and drown; indifferent to what will happen to a war refugee.

The numbers of a crisis

In 2016, in Italy, the number of migrants who reached the Italian harbors, according the Interior Ministry, was 180,000. In the first half of 2017, they have been almost 90,000. The projection over ten years, at this rate, is more or less 2 million people that we may welcome on our territory; discounting the over-stayers, foreigners who decide to remain in Italy once their visa has expired.

So far, the solution to sort asylum seekers in other Countries, officially taken in 2016, is going forward with difficulty – as highlighted in the latest report of the Italian Interior Ministry. The eastern Europe Countries do not accept shares of immigrants, not even under the threat of sanctions by the European Union. In Italy the government is assigning dozens, hundreds of migrants in many towns, from north to south. In my the neighborhood of origin, a cooperative is planning to open a service center for migrants (at least one hundred migrants are already present on the territory), inside a urban tissue, Gallarate, that counts about 50.000 citizens (included immigrants of first and second generation). In Milan you can spot them everywhere, we cannot pretend not to: inside public means stations, at the corner of the streets, outside the bakeries, reaching out the hat for charity.

Only a small part of them are war refugees: to them you must add a 35% with some kind of international protection. In fact, still in 2017, there are roughly 26 war zones orbiting the European Union: from the Democratic Republic of Congo to Iraq, from Afghanistan to Morocco. All of these places are sources of refugees who find an outlet on the Libyan coasts. Lately I personally got to know two refugees: one from Somalia, headed to Germany; the other from South-Sudan, wandering in Milan. There are dozens of million people who, if they left Misrata or Zuwara today, would apply for, and get, the refugee status once they arrived in Italy.

Out of ten who reach Italy via sea, six are economic migrants (UN). Those who have visited the Sub-Saharan Africa know why so many young people are ready to take such dangerous journeys: they leave behind hunger, poverty, violence, and deadly jobs.

The Libyan route is the most accessible, by the way. The country is divided by low-intensity conflicts among different factions. There is no central government which control in a capillary way the areas where the human traffickers operate. The European Union funds the local groups in order to stop the migrants flows; however, the outcome is pretty different from Turkey, where the rain of billions of euros has effectively interrupted the Balkan route.

There are hundreds million people who could decide: yes, it is worth to undertake this hope journey towards Europe. Their families funds them, with the mirage of future reunifications in houses with electricity and running water, in cities plenty of medical centers and supermarkets, in Countries where citizens and workers are much more protected by laws.

At the moment in Libya the number of people waiting to leave for Italy differs from the sources: they may be hundred thousands, even one million.

It’s not just the magnitude of these numbers that terrifies, but the lack of a common strategy to cope with this crisis. In Paris, London, Berlin, Amsterdam, Stockholm, real destinations of this migration, it has always been enough to hide behind the Maritime Treaties; or the EU Accords, such as the Dublin Treaty, which says that migrants must be registered in the arrival Country, and must stay there.

Translated: Italy must take care of the migrants who get here in EU from Libya, or across the Sicily Channel. And Italian people, as European citizens, can feel this abandonment before such a tragedy, which is tearing up consciences.

Brussels is practicing a new form of “turning away” policy, after the one launched effectively in 2009 by the Berlusconi government – among harsh criticism by the European partners.

At the time migrants, included those entitled to asylum, were turned away from Italy, and sent back to Libya. As a matter of facts, departures diminished – and consequently, the founderings. The agreements between Rome and Tripoli in 2008 lasted until 2011, when a coalition of States led by France, UK, USA and Qatar, tore down the Gaddafis, in power since 1969.

After stopping the “turning away” policy, Italy resumed the old ballet with our EU partner Malta, over the territory competences, in order to rescue the migrants crossing the Sicily Channel: “It’s Rome turn; no, it’s La Valletta turn. Meanwhile, not few boats sank into the sea, with their burden of human beings. This ballet went on up to the hecatomb of nearly 600 migrants drowned miles off Lampedusa Island, in October 2013. One of the blackest pages in the Italian Republic history. Those two shipwrecks moved our rescue boats beyond the Maritime Treaties.

A week later the Italian Government launched Operation “Mare Nostrum”. And in 2014 the EU launched Operation Triton, led by Frontex, the European agency that controls the EU borders. In 2015 it was launched Sophia: since then, under the Italian command, many European navies have been patrolling the Sicily Channel. The goal was to reduce the timing needed to rescue boats and rubber boats in difficulty.

After these navy operations in the Sicily Channel, one thing is clear: shipwrecks have not diminished, and the number of migrants has increased. Boats with men, women and children often leave the Libyan shores without enough petrol to cross the sea. For years Vittorio Alessandro, former Admiral of the Italian Coast Guard has explained: the only solution is to open humanitarian corridors across the Sicily Channel, with hot-spots in Libya, under the protection of either the European Union or the United Nations.

The rescue border

This solution has never been taken in consideration in Brussels. However, a bad copy has been put into practice, recently, by the Non-Governmental-Organizations (NGOs). Around 15 boats, almost all of them under non-Italian flags, sail across the liquid boundary of the Libyan waters, and they are often right there where the boats and rubber boats are passing by. After the transfer on board, they sail towards the safest harbor; which is not in Libya – a place where unspeakable horrors take place, as documented by the Italian facilities that take care of the migrants; neither is Tunisia, or the tiny Malta. The safest harbor is in Italy; which becomes a legal cage for migrants, because France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia have sealed their borders, suspending the Schengen Treaty for the free movement of European people across the Countries. That is how migrants get physically “turned away”, back to Italy.

MoasThe NGOs’ role has ended up under scrutiny: prosecutors in Italy and Libya have raised concerns that NGOs are flanking the human traffickers. Frontex has defined the NGOs’ activity a “pull factor”. Anyway, those corridors, despite the NGOs’ ships sailing few miles off the Libyan coasts, are still deadly: almost 2,000 people, in 2017, have died. And this operation is not accompanied by any new corresponding European immigration policy.

Doctors Without Borders, Moas, and the other NGOs remind us on a daily basis: the only policy we put in place is saving as many lives as possible.

This operation has been made even more difficult after the latest EU summit on migrants, that took place in Tallinn, Estonia. Now there is a code for the NGOs: their boats must stay out of the Libyan waters, and they can’t be available for contacts with the human traffickers, not even visually.

This is the check mate on our identities; that the solutions taken by our governments, pushed by our opinions, could be functional to the death of men and women who step onto the Mediterranean abyss.

By now, six years after, we know that the reasons for the Libyan war in 2011 were functional to cause this disaster; the intervention, masked as a humanitarian effort, aimed to change a very thorny regime, and get easier access to a very fine oil. The outcome, as the Middle-East reporter Alberto Negri explains on the prestigious Il Sole 24 Ore, has been damaging for Italy: Rome has lost a crucial ally.

For Italy the solution of this crisis, at a political and strategic level, seems to be far; above all, because the other European Countries don’t see the Libyan route as an emergency: it’s not a crisis for their country system, neither an existential drama for their citizens. And it’s tempting to quote the Infinite by Giacomo Leopardi: “So in this immensity [of this tragedy] drown my own thoughts”. But ours is not an epoch for literature; today, it is not a verb for metaphors: across the Sicily Channel people are still drowning.

Cristiano Arienti

Cover: Migrants rescued by the Italian Navy. (Pic by Italian Navy/Reuters)

Links and sources

The Infinite, by Giaocomo Leopardi 





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