Lampedusa, half way to broken-promise land

There are reports of ships failing to stop if they see migrant boats in trouble

Share

One evening last month I was in a beach café in southern Spain, looking out over the dark sea towards north Africa. Even at 10 o'clock at night, young African men were moving from table to table, their arms laden with carvings, watches and pirated DVDs. The same young men can be seen at the big market in Granada on Sunday mornings, arranging handbags with fake designer logos on a sheet while one of their number watches out for the police. They work for criminal gangs who supply them with cheap (and illegal) goods to sell while they pay off their debt to the people-smugglers who arranged their crossing from north Africa.

They are the lucky ones, unlike the hundreds of migrants who died in a fire and shipwreck off the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa last week. Such events are not rare but the potential scale of the disaster – around 500 were crammed on a 65ft boat – made headlines. Another shipwreck two days earlier, off Sicily, went almost unnoticed; according to Amnesty International, 13 Africans died when their boat ran aground off Ragusa and the smugglers reportedly forced them to jump to their deaths. Most of the 13 victims – as with the Lampedusa wreck – were from Eritrea, a country ravaged by war with Ethiopia and an inhuman, heavily militarised government.

It is clear that conflict, poverty and fear of the future drive people to this desperate gamble. Two years ago, as dictators toppled in North Africa, thousands of Tunisians attempted the crossing in unstable boats to Lampedusa. In Rome last December, I was shocked by the number of shabbily-dressed Asian men eking out a living selling umbrellas. Then there is the war in Syria: according to the UN, 7,500 Syrian refugees have arrived in Italy in 2013. That's on top of 7,500 Eritreans and 3,000 Somalis; in the midst of an economic crisis, Italy is struggling to cope with the arrival this year alone of more than 30,000 migrants.

Many are naïve, knowing little about Europe, and they are encouraged by people-smugglers to entertain unrealistic expectations. Hope turns to disappointment and rage as the benefits they anticipated fail to materialise. Two years ago, migrants threatened with being sent back to Tunisia fought running battles with riot police in Italy. Two days ago, French riot police arrived in Calais and confronted around 60 Syrians who had blockaded a gangway at the ferry terminal, demanding to be allowed to come to the UK. The French authorities said the Syrians turned down an offer of asylum, claiming they were treated worse than "animals" in France.

And I can't help thinking: it isn't a disaster on the scale of last week's loss of life, but the sight of young men hawking pirated DVDs to tourists on Spanish and Italian beaches is another kind of tragedy. It is a reflection of the sad fact that the outpouring of sympathy for shipwreck victims does not always extend to live migrants; many Africans who survive end up in camps, awaiting deportation, or bound by debt and illegal status to people-smugglers. Meanwhile, this exodus of young men – and they mostly are young men – drains countries of a labour force, as well as potential fathers and husbands; the Italian coastguard said the survivors of Wednesday's disaster included 40 unaccompanied boys aged 14 to 17.

David Cameron's commitment to protect the UK's international development budget has been attacked by some of his back-benchers and the former Ukip (now independent) MEP Godfrey Bloom, who achieved notoriety for his infantile rant about aid to "bongo-bongo land". But the argument that what happens in Africa is someone else's problem is disproved by the attempts of thousands of desperate souls to cross the Mediterranean. Even if the political right is not impressed by any moral imperative, it makes sense in economic terms to help developing countries educate their young and provide jobs.

The long-term answer is to cut the huge disparity in living standards which is driving mass migration. Other things can be done in the short term. There have been reports of ships' captains failing to stop when they spot migrant boats in obvious trouble, so every vessel should be required to assist under international law. Some African countries are trying to warn their populations about the people-smugglers' false promises, and European governments could do more to help get the message across. Identifying and arresting smugglers is essential, and heavy jail sentences would be a warning to others. It is also clear that front-line countries need help to cope.

As Italy observed a day of national mourning, the country's president, Giorgio Napolitano, talked eloquently about the deaths at sea as a "succession of true slaughters of innocents". But he also appealed to other countries to shoulder their share of the burden of migrants, while one of his colleagues observed that this is "not an Italian but a European disaster". He was right: it demands a concerted response from European governments, which need to work together to stop this evil trade. A world where such disasters are so frequent they become normalised, and go mostly unreported, is a challenge to our common humanity.

politicalblonde.co.uk; twitter.com/@polblonde

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Employment Solicitor

£30000 - £60000 per annum + Excellent: Austen Lloyd: Employment Solicitor - Ke...

Argyll Scott International: Risk Assurance Manager

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: Hi All, I'm currently recruiting for t...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Solicitor

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: HAMPSHIRE MARKET TOWN - A highly attr...

Ashdown Group: IT Systems Analyst / Application Support Engineer (ERP / SSRS)

£23000 - £30000 per annum + pension, 25days holiday: Ashdown Group: An industr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Bill Cosby speaks onstage at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund 25th Awards Gala on 11 November 2013 in Washington  

Bill Cosby: Isn’t it obvious why his accusers have stayed silent up until now?

Grace Dent
 

Our political landscape is not changing anywhere near as much as we assume it is

Steve Richards
In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible