Odyssey of despair: and not a twitch of conscience by Europe's leaders

Only three African refugees survived when a crammed boat sank off Italy. Today, EU leaders will discuss ways of stemming the human tide. But what about the reasons for the exodus?
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The Independent Online

All that was left of the nameless boat was a rubber tyre bobbing in the water. Clinging to it, at their last gasp, two women and a man - the only evidence that perhaps 60, perhaps 70 would-be immigrants to the European Union had gone to a watery grave.

The boat had no name, the victims who drowned off Sicily were among dozens of anonymous black people.

The story hardly figured in the world's media.

In the Greek city of Thessaloniki today, leaders of EU - a foothold for which the victims had paid out their life savings to gain - will turn away without a twitch of conscience. Rather than address the underlying reasons that send "illegal immigrants" to Europe's shores - EU heads of state will instead contemplate ways of speeding up ways of deporting them to transit camps or "protection zones" outside Europe.

They are doing this because the wretched of the earth - from war zones and economies that have been hollowed out by decades of misrule and underdevelopment - are clawing their way into Europe. They come from all directions: from the westernmost extreme of the Mediterranean, where yesterday 116 immigrants were picked up when their boat got into trouble in the Straits of Gibraltar, to the tiny lumps of rock that are the last Italian possessions short of Tunisia, far to the south, where more than 1,000 immigrants have made landfall in the past month.

And in Thessaloniki, subject at the top of the agenda - perhaps the one political issue on the importance of which all European leaders agreed - is how to raise the walls of Fortress Europe higher.

This week, one of the most powerful politicians in Italy gave his answer. Umberto Bossi, a minister in the government that is about to assume the presidency of the EU, said: "I want to hear the roar of the canon. The immigrants must be hunted down, for better or worse ... At the second or third warning - boom! Fire the canons at them! Otherwise this will never stop."

An embarrassed colleague dismissed Mr Bossi as a "caveman". But the sentiment is rife: exasperation bordering on fury at the constant drip-drip of the arrivals, limping out of Africa for a few crumbs from the rich man's table.

Once in a while a face emerges from the fog of unwanted arrivals. For example, Sahro Axnad, a Somali woman of 20, tumbled ashore at Lampedusa last week clutching her three-year-old daughter, Sorania, weighing 7kg, one-third of the normal weight. Now they are in hospital in Palermo. By foot, by lorry, by leaky, stinking, overloaded boat she had come carrying her tiny parcel. "I fled because in Somalia they are killing everybody. I left my husband and my parents behind. Sorania is not well. I left home to save her."

The latest disaster to strike the desperate "clandestini", as the Italians call them, who pack tiny wooden craft in the Tunisian ports of Kelibia and Nabeul and set off for the southernmost rock of Europe less than 300km away, swallowed everything. Recovering in hospital in Palermo yesterday, the three survivors report that the boat gave "a sudden shudder". It was no more than 15 metres long, and crammed so tight that the gunwhale was barely above the water line. Then a hole opened up in the side and within minutes it sank.

It happened some time on Monday night in the treacherous Sicily Channel, graveyard for hundreds of migrants. Their journey was almost done: when a Tunisian fishing boat, the Almahdia, picked up the survivors, they were 32km south of their destination, Lampedusa. An air and sea rescue operation was launched, but the results were meagre: seven corpses recovered so far. Sicilians nod grimly at the news: the channel is like that, they say. In 1996 a boat with 300 immigrants on board went to the bottom, not one body came to the surface.

But after the waves closed, normal traffic resumed with barely a pause. At 1am yesterday morning, another 42 people rolled into Lampedusa; a few hours later, seven North Africans in a rubber dinghy clambered ashore at Marettimo in the Egadi islands, off Sicily's west coast. The Italian government says fewer than 6,000 clandestini have arrived this year, about half the total for the same period last year. But recent calm seas have encouraged an armada of desperate vessels, and over the past three weeks more than 1,000 have arrived.

As the permanent population of the southernmost Italian island is only 4,000, and the immigrant reception centre there can take only 192, the islanders are alarmed. The hotel owners and restaurateurs are in revolt: this week 30 of them protested to the government.

"We are not racists, but I'm concerned for our health," said Angela Maraventano, one of the 30 and local secretary of the Northern League, Umberto Bossi's party. "Lampedusa is not equipped to take such an influx." Her words were mild compared to Mr Bossi's.

It is because Italians understand the reasons why migrants keep coming that Mr Bossi's voice resonates only with a lunatic fringe. "We were emigrants ourselves until a few years ago," one man in Palermo told me. "Our grandfathers sailed to England or America."

While penned, those who crave a portion of what we take for granted in such abundance sit and swelter. And the sea is dark with other desperate little craft, heading this way.

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