Defying Death in the Sea: Migrants Keep Coming

Day after day, a humanitarian tragedy unfolds in the waters of the sea that the Romans called Mare Nostrum, “our sea.”  The latest reports of deaths among the desperate hordes of people trying to reach the Italian coastline from Libya and other littoral countries, including Turkey, are appalling.

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A few days ago, three rubber dinghies were lost in heavy seas, causing the death of no fewer than 330 people. According to survivors, another dinghy with 100 people onboard also vanished in the turbulent waters of Sicily’s channel. A large number of the victims who went into the water succumbed to hypothermia, an excruciating way to die.

The world has far too many human tragedies to watch, from Ukraine to the Middle East, from Nigeria to Burma, to pay much attention to the wretched drama of human beings risking their lives to escape poverty and death in Africa, but also in Syria and other failed countries. The spectacle of a multitude of people pushed into the jaws of death in the unforgiving Mediterranean Sea looks even more terrifying as we learn that many boats are literally forced into the sea by the armed militia that are fighting among themselves in Libya, a country where there is no hope for peace.

It is difficult to say it, but it must be said. The “civilized” nations of Europe, and not only they, bear a large part of the responsibility for the deaths of thousand of people in the Mediterranean as well as for the gruesome fate of the population of Libya.

It is just as hard to understand why and how so many people flock to Libya from Southern and Western Africa to escape to safety in Italy and then on to a new life in Europe. Many of them report of having been massed near Tripoli and having paid one thousand dinars, the equivalent of $800 to $1,000, to find a spot on a dinghy. In previous years, they were embarked in rickety boats by the criminal elements that exploited the refugees and sent them to their tragic destiny with a couple of small tanks of gasoline. Once they paid, the refugees were forced into the boats under the threat of the armed thugs.

The weight of saving so many human beings fell for a long time upon the shoulders of the Italian Navy that in October 2013 started an operation aptly named “Mare Nostrum” to pick up the refugees stranded in the cruel sea. They came mostly from six nations: Syria, Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Somalia and Eritrea. The strain of the perilous migration was felt almost exclusively by Italy, where a large and expensive apparatus had to be established to receive the migrants, host them in special shelters, feed them and help them reach other resettlement camps. The sheer numbers of refugees, many of them children, created a veritable political crisis, as Italy pleaded with other member nations of the European Union to help, not just financially but operationally and socially. Finally, in November 2014, the European Union launched a unified operation, named “Triton,” that deployed a naval force of 25 vessels supported by nine search planes.

Sadly, this was not a truly humanitarian search and rescue operation like the “Mare Nostrum,” where Italian Navy ships went to Libyan waters to pick up the human flotsam. “Triton” does not venture that far and is limited to intervention only in cases of “grave danger.” Needless to say, the refugees kept coming and dying in larger numbers. Ironically, the main reason for such a drastic operational change was the warning of a few European politicians that sending ships so close to the departure points in Africa was an invitation to even more refugees knowing that they would be picked up at sea to embark in unsafe boats.

If European politicians continue to ignore the growing dimension of the reckless unstoppable migration, the saturation point of the assistance and resettlement of the migrants will pose a far larger problem for Europe. Suffice to say that in January 2013 the refugees saved by the Italian Navy numbered 217; in the same month of the current year 3,528 made it to the Italian coastline alive. The calm seas of the coming spring and summer months will undoubtedly set new records.

The authorities dealing with human rights on the continent have already opened up, condemning “Triton” as “inadequate.” The monitoring and rescue operations must be more effective, many non-government organizations are saying. Pope Francis echoes them. More lives must be saved, they all say. The scenario of tens of thousands of refugees swamping the European coastline (Spain too is a destination) is daunting because unlike what happens to illegal migrants to the U.S., the Africans who reach Europe cannot be sent back, except in exceptional cases. In the meanwhile, protest movements in other European countries agitate to keep the migrants out. Italy is filled with them to the brim. It is indeed tragic, but something has got to give.

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