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Migrants’ tide turns into a flood: Italy and Malta push for strong EU action

In two decades, 20,000 are believed to have drowned trying to make treacherous sea crossing

By Mick O’Reilly, Senior Associate Editor
15:03 October 16, 2013

Dubai: “I felt that my feet were wet. I didn’t think much of it at first. Then there was shouting. Two men started fighting. I didn’t know what was happening.

"Half an hour later, the water was over my feet. People were using everything they had to get the water out. Women were crying. Even men were crying. Some were praying. I was praying. I really thought I was going to die.”

Samuel, 23, is an Eritrean migrant who made it to Lampedusa, a small island that is Italy and Europe’s most southern spit of land. The island, along with neighbouring Malta and Sicily, has become Ground Zero in a deadly sea route that has seen thousands of asylum-seekers from North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa the Horn of Africa and now, Syria, attempting to reach Europe.

This year alone, 32,000 asylum-seekers have landed in Italy and Malta alone. And in the past two decades, an estimated 20,000 are believed to have drowned trying to make the treacherous sea crossing — one, that Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said in Valletta this week is “turning the Mediterranean into a cemetery”.

Since the beginning of October, nearly 400 asylum-seekers have died in the sea between the islands and North Africa; On Tuesday, Italian officials say 370 migrants were rescued from three boats in the waters between Libya and Sicily.

The recent deaths have prompted renewed calls for the European Union to do more to better patrol the southern Mediterranean and prevent such tragedies — and for countries like Libya to crack down on smuggling operations. When European leaders meet next Thursday and Friday, both Malta and Italy will be pushing for more aid and tighter controls.

Sicily’s regional assembly has approved an emergency decree that governor Rosario Crocetta said would speed up security measures to deal with the growing influx of refugees on the island.

The latest arrivals come on top of the 32,000 asylum seekers that the United Nations refugee agency says have landed in Italy and Malta so far this year. Most leave from an increasingly lawless Libya and arrive on tiny Lampedusa, where the local refugee centre is often severely overcrowded.

Border guards said they had also seized a “mother ship” and arrested 17 crew members, who are believed to be Egyptian, following a landing in the southern Calabria region on Sunday. These larger fishing vessels are often used by smugglers to carry out most of the journey. Migrants are then put on smaller boats when they are nearer the coast to evade controls.

Thousands have perished over the years as the crossings are often made on ageing vessels. The refugee shipwreck on October 3 off Lampedusa was the country’s worst ever, with 364 people killed when their 20-metre boat caught fire, capsized and sank within sight of the shore. Just a few days later another heavily laden boat flipped over in rough seas off Malta, killing at least 36 of the Syrian refugees on board.

Samuel was one of the lucky ones.

Having paid a smuggler for passage by sea to Italy, the flimsy fishing boat he and around 70 others were sailing in had started taking on water. The engine was still working, the sea was calm, the weather good. But the worst had happened.

What started as the final climax to a gruelling odyssey across a continent had gone terrifyingly wrong. Like so many migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean on over-packed and dilapidated fishing boats, he and his fellows were in desperate need of help. The fighting was about whether or not to send a distress signal. The ‘captain’ had a satellite phone for use as a last resort but panic had set in on board.

After hours of chaos, the satellite call was made, one of two such calls answered by an Italian naval frigate and a patrol boat late on Monday. Between Sicily and Libya the Italian government has deployed ships, helicopters and unmanned drones to help avert further shipwrecks.

Lampedusa, which lies southwest of Sicily and just 113km from the coast of Tunisia, has been a stepping stone for migrants seeking a better life in Europe for two decades. Now the Syrian civil war and unrest in Egypt and African countries are fuelling the flow of refugees, many of whom have to pass through an increasingly unstable Libya. The reception centre on Lampedusa, which is under Sicily’s administration, is now hosting four or five times its capacity.

But if the EU is to adopt a tighter security cordon, humanitarian organisations say the measures may leave more migrants stranded in the Sahara desert or delivered into the hands of Libyan militias and crime groups, which are known to have beaten, raped and imprisoned migrants in the past. Libya is the departure point for two thirds of the boats.

Riccardo Compagnucci, head of the Italian Interior Ministry’s immigration office, ruled out Libya as a safe port because of its poor security and human rights situation. Compagnucci told Reuters some migrants could be taken to Malta and Greece in order to facilitate rescue operations, but added: “Libya isn’t safe even for its prime minister” — referring to last week’s brief kidnapping of Prime Minister Ali Zeidan. Zeidan too is appealing for more aid to help stem the flood of asylum-seekers.

On Wednesday, the head of the World Food Programme warned that conflicts around the world mean there must be no “donor fatigue” as the United Nations marked World Food Day.

Ertharin Cousin warned the shipwreck tragedy off Lampedusa should underscore the need for more aid to countries of origin.

“We are just addressing Lampedusa without addressing the challenges in those places and what is driving people out of their homes,” she said, adding that aid funds were running out for forgotten but ongoing humanitarian crises like North Korea or Yemen, as money shifts to conflicts such as Syria, where the media attention is stronger. “There is no room for donor fatigue,” Cousin said at the UN food aid agency’s headquarters in Rome. “The biggest challenge is ensuring we don’t forget conflicts that are beyond the attention of the media.

— With inputs from agencies