The discovery of 30 dead bodies in a boat carrying 600 people across the Mediterranean has again highlighted Europe’s failure to act in the face of an ongoing human tragedy.
Last week, as European Union leaders argued over the nomination of former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker for the European Commission presidency, the sea crossings continued, with 5,500 migrants arriving in Italy at the weekend alone.
At the Brussels meeting, demands by Italy for greater action to halt the deadly exodus effectively fell off the agenda. But as news of the latest 30 deaths emerged yesterday, there was anger in Italy at the perceived lack of support from other EU members to stop the flow of immigrants from North Africa.
Italian rescuers found the bodies in the hold of a fishing boat from North Africa when they boarded the vessel to help the most vulnerable of almost 600 migrants in the ship.
An Italian navy doctor told AFP news agency that the dead had “likely suffocated” in the tiny space, and advised against removing the bodies in case there were poisonous gases in the hold.
A navy statement said some of the migrants may have drowned rather than suffocated, though it would not confirm whether there was water in the hold or how much.
“Another 30 dead in a boat. Another 30 deaths on the consciences of those who defend Mare Lorum [‘Their Sea’],” said Matteo Salvini, head of the anti-immigration Northern League party, in an ironic reference to the country’s “Mare Nostrum” (“Our Sea”) operation to rescue boat immigrants.
The League has warned Matteo Renzi, the Italian prime minister, that plucking asylum seekers and immigrants to safety from their rickety boats only helps the terrible trade in human trafficking and encourages more people to set out across the Mediterranean for Europe. Others say that leaving the immigrants to drown is not a humane option. A group of MPs in Mr Renzi’s centre-left Democratic Party, led by Michele Anzaldi, called Mr Salvini a “jackal”, and accused him of “speculating on the dead and tarnishing the name of the Italian government”.
Since political strife exploded with the 2011 Arab Spring, Italian deals with North African dictators to halt the flow of migrants have fallen apart and thousands of economic migrants have been joined by those fleeing war zones.
Italy has repeatedly asked the EU for more help in dealing with the influx. But the Italian news agency Ansa reported that reciprocity on asylum seekers and migrants, a point strongly pushed by Italy, was scratched from last week’s EU summit after pressure from northern European countries.
As Italian anger mounted over the latest tragedy, German President Joachim Gauck urged his country to be more involved with migrant rescues. “Refugees who land in Italy or Malta aren’t simply an Italian or Maltese problem,” he said.
Cecilia Malmström, the European Commissioner for Home Affairs, said the EU was working closely with Italy, Europol and Frontex, in fighting the criminal gangs that charged refugees their life savings to cross the Mediterranean in unsafe vessels.
Ms Malmström said that she had met the Italian Interior Minister Angelino Alfano on 26 June to discuss the crisis. “We are currently making €4m available in the framework of the Emergency Assistance to Italy, and we are looking at ways to contribute even more,” she said.
A source close to Jean-Claude Juncker, the man expected to be the next president of the European Commission, has said that Mr Junker might create a new commissioner post dedicated to the question of migration.
But Italy wants more radical action and is pressing for the EU border control agency Frontex to take over responsibility for rescuing refugees and migrants in the Mediterranean.
Back in April, Mr Renzi called for more commitment from the EU and signalled that he would use Italy’s latest six-month presidency of the EU Council, which begins today, to push for greater international involvement.
Mr Renzi’s predecessor as Prime Minister, Enrico Letta set up Mare Nostrum following two migrant disasters in October 2013, in which a boat capsized off the Sicilian island of Lampedusa, killing more than 360 people.
Today, Maurizio Gasparri, the Senate leader of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, blasted Mr Renzi’s “demented” navy operation and the “thousands of landings, deaths, tragedy, chaos. We cannot go on like this.”
Since the start of the year, more than 50,000 migrants have arrived on Italian shores, many saved from the sea by the country’s search-and-rescue forces.
At the current rate, the number of arrivals will soon pass the record 62,000 who arrived by sea in 2011, when numbers were swelled by the “Arab Spring” uprisings across North Africa.
The exodus has raised concerns that Italy is running out of resources to house and process the refugees.
The boat with 30 dead on board is being towed by the Italian navy and is today expected to arrive in Pozzallo on the south-east coast of Sicily.
“We cannot face this emergency alone,” Luigi Ammatuna, the Mayor of Pozzallo, told Ansa. “The only two refrigerated rooms in the cemetery are occupied by the bodies of migrants. Where will we put the 30 victims of this atrocious tragedy?”