In the last month more than three hundred migrants have died trying to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa from North Africa. Matt Carr visited the island in 2011, while researching his book Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent. In the following extract he describes the impact of Europe’s migrant tragedy on the island that Italians once called l’isola bella – the beautiful island.
Every day, helicopters buzzed overhead and the orange-rimmed coastguard vessels and armed patrol boats of the Guardia di Finanza skimmed across the water on routine patrol or in response to distress calls. Next to the tourist port, with its rows of bobbing speedboats and mostly empty pleasure boats offering tours of the island, a motley pile of fifty-odd destroyed or damaged fishing vessels were piled haphazardly together in a poignant monument to maritime journeys with a more urgent purpose. In the local cemetery at the edge of town, amongst the ornate stone and marble tombs with embedded photographs of Italian fishermen and stolid island women dating back to the nineteenth century, a wooden cross designates the more humble graves of extracomunitaria—a word used to describe poor non-European migrants. Elsewhere twelve wooden crosses with artificial flowers carry the date 03, the year in which they drowned, followed by a number. There were no recent graves, but the migrant exodus from the Libyan civil war was punctuated with maritime tragedies of this kind. On 10 May a boat carrying 650 migrants broke up on leaving Tripoli harbour, drowning hundreds. On 2 June 150 people drowned when a boat with 850 passengers capsized only 40 miles to the south of the island. According to UNHCR, 1,500 migrants who left North Africa between March and June have never been accounted for. Though UNHCR had called upon NATO to intervene to provide assistance to any migrant boat spotted at sea, rescuing migrants was clearly not a priority for countries that were more concerned with toppling their former ally. Drownings were not only due to the poor quality of the boats used by smugglers. Often their passengers were packed so closely together that any sudden movement could turn them over, and such incidents were more likely to occur during rescue operations, when the approach of a coastguard or navy boat would provoke a destabilizing rush towards their would-be rescuers. The commander of the Lampedusa coastguard, Captain Antonio Morana, described one nocturnal rescue attempt in April in which his officers rescued fifty-three people from a capsized boat in rough seas. By the time they got there 100–200 passengers had already died, Morana said, and when they returned the next day the seas were still so rough that they were unable to retrieve the twenty-odd bodies that were still floating in the water. Morana is proud of the dedication and professionalism of his officers, many of whom have witnessed some truly horrific scenes in the last few years. At one point he showed me a video of the Lampedusa coastguard rescuing a boat packed with African migrants. The tense faces of the coastguard officers and the clearly terrified men and women stuffed together on the deck told a story that has often recurred in these waters. But there was another less noble dimension to the search and rescue operations in the central Mediterranean since 2009. Had his officers ever participated in ‘pushback’ operations? I asked. ‘No, not the coastguard’, Morana declared. ‘Never. We help and rescue people.’ Whether or not the Lampedusa coastguard had participated in the pushback policy, such operations had taken place and the Italian government had admitted to them. And despite Italy’s improved performance in Lampedusa, its priorities—and those of the EU—remained essentially unchanged. In May the British Foreign Secretary, William Hague, insisted that European governments would continue to be ‘tough’ towards migrants leaving Libya on the grounds that ‘We can’t just accept a flow of hundreds of thousands or millions of people into southern Europe and then coming beyond that’.
Matthew Carr is the author of Fortress Europe: Dispatches from a Gated Continent