Illegal immigrants risk new sea route to Europe

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The Independent Online

Sixty-five years ago, the rickety boats fighting through the towering waves of the Mediterranean towards a new home were crammed with Jews escaping Nazi persecution. Today the boats are plying in the opposite direction, towards Europe, and increasingly their cargo is Palestinians - fleeing the living hell of Palestine.

At least seven people died and 24 are missing feared dead after a 30 metre-long wooden fishing boat packed with 150 refugees, most of them Palestinians, was pummelled by Force Eight waves and broke up on the beach of Roccella Jonica in Calabria, on the heel of the Italian boot, on Sunday night.

First reports told of "clandestini", illegal immigrants, walking along the highway that runs from the beach. It was no big surprise: Calabria is a new entry point for migrants heading towards Europe from the coast of Egypt or even Turkey, and there have been at least 14 landings this year. The journey is far longer than the more common route from Libya to Lampedusa, Italy's southernmost island. And it is no less perilous.

Corpses were already being washed up on the shore of Roccella Jonica when the carabinieri arrived. It was a scene "of extraordinary violence," according to one of the officers. "The waves were crashing down on the remains of the ship," which had already been smashed in three pieces. Survivors were straggling along the road: "many were injured, the waves had tossed them up on the beach, some were moaning about stomach pains, nearly all were in a state of confusion."

Later Abdelsiih Mohammed Ecsim (as the authorities recorded his name), a boy who marked his 14th birthday during the crossing, said through a Palestinian interpreter, "It was dark, I was shaking with fear - but only at the end, before that I was shaking with cold."

"I ran away from Ramallah," he went on, "that's where my parents live. At Ramallah I went to school in the morning and worked as a bricklayer in the afternoon." By his reckoning the sea journey took nine days. With the other Palestinians he had fled his home town by lorry, hidden under tarpaulins, driving for many hours before arriving in some kind of reception centre, where they were joined by Sudanese from the Darfur region.

Sirag Themir, one of the Sudanese, told Corriere della Sera newspaper, "At the beginning we had packs of tuna and cheese. But we had nothing to eat for the last three days because the big waves washed the food box into the sea."

Another of the children on the boat recounted, "There were so many of us on the boat that we were unable to move. Yet even so I was dying of cold. But when we ended up in the water" - after the boat had been smashed by the waves - "the only thing I thought about was saving my life. I didn't feel the cold any more."

At least nine more migrants died in heavy seas as the rubber dinghy they were packed into capsized as it was approaching the coast of Syracuse in Sicily on Sunday. The death total is expected to rise. They were victims of new tactics adopted by the men who run the trade: bringing the migrants most of the way to Italy in a mother ship, usually a fishing boat, then putting them in flimsy inflatables for the last few miles and fleeing the scene.

Yesterday two such ships were chased and arrested by the Italian coast guard off the south coast of Sicily. One of them was reported to have 77 would-be migrants still on board.

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