We can’t let humanity drown | Pietro Bartolo

As the EU debates a new ‘asylum and immigration pact’, PIETRO BARTOLO – Italian MEP, doctor, and a frontline campaigner for the rights of asylum-seekers – calls on Europe to rediscover its ‘humanity’

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the 2013 Lampedusa tragedy, in which over 500 people perished trying to reach Europe by boat. At the victims’ funeral, then-EU Commission president Jose Barroso declared that: “The kind of tragedy we have witnessed here [...] should never happen again.” Yet there have been numerous other tragedies since then: including the latest one off the coast of Calabria, just last week. So how much of what was promised, back in 2013, would you say has actually been delivered, over the past decade? 

Nothing. Of all that was said, and promised that day... nothing at all has actually been done.

Because, you see, every time a tragedy like this happens – and there have been so many, over the years – everybody reacts by ‘thumping their chest’. They all get ‘emotional’; or pretend to get emotional, anyway... and this is something we saw even in the latest tragedy of Cutro: in which over 100 people died – most of them children - and the sea is still returning more corpses to us, every day.

Once again, everyone was very ‘upset’ by what happened: in particular, the government of Italy. In reality, however: just one week later, nobody is even talking about it anymore. On the contrary, they are all trying, in whatever way they can, to defend themselves for the mistakes that they have made. Because this tragedy could have been avoided.  Mistakes were made; there were errors and omissions; as well as negligence, and superficiality.

And it is not the fault – as the [Italian] government would have us all believe – of the Port Authorities, or the Coast Guard. I believe that there was a general underestimation of the situation, across the board; and the government did not intervene, in the way it should have intervened. This is why the tragedy occurred...

But as I said earlier, we have had countless other tragedies over the years. You mentioned the one of October 3, 2013, for instance. I was there. I was the one who - as the only doctor available, at the time - had to conduct all the first post-mortem inspections.

And it’s something I hate doing, by the way. Even though I’m a doctor: I’m still afraid, to this day, whenever I have to inspect a dead body. And I was terrified, every time I had to open up yet another body-bag, to see what was inside this time...

[Pause] This is why I have difficulties talking about those people as ‘just numbers’, you know. On that day, October 3,  I had to conduct post-mortem inspections on 368 dead bodies... 

In fact, the experience inspired you to write a book, entitled ‘Tears of Salt: A Doctor’s Story of the Refugee Crisis’. Even the title suggests a deeply ‘personal’ rapport with the victims: something which most other people – including European governments – will never have experienced themselves. Do you think this is why European politics seems so ‘inhumane’, on this issue? Because governments view those people as - like you said yourself – ‘just numbers’?  

That is, in fact, what I was coming to. Yes, people talk about those victims as ‘just numbers’; but it’s difficult for me – who have looked those people, living and dead, in the eye – to do the same. 

Do you know, for instance, what made the biggest impression on me [in 2013]? Children. There were so many children, among the victims that day. And they were all ‘dressed up in their Sunday best’, too: all with clean, colourful clothes, and polished little shoes; the girls, all with their hair all done up in bows, and pigtails... 

Because the shipwreck happened only 300 metres from the coast. They had almost ‘arrived’. And their mothers had evidently prepared them all, to make a good impression upon their ‘arrival in Europe’. As if to say: “These are our children: look at them, they’re all clean, and well-dressed... just like your own children...”

And instead: they’re all dead. And they all died here, around us: in ‘our’ sea...

Another thing I shall never forget, for as long as I live, was when I opened up one of those body-bags, thinking to myself: “Please, let there not be another child inside”. And yet, there was another child inside. A small boy of around three: who was wearing a red pair of shorts, and a white T-shirt. 

When I stripped him naked, he almost looked like he was just asleep; and could be woken up with just a gentle nudge. There was no sign of ‘rigor mortis’, yet – which, as you know, sets in around two hours after death – which meant that this child must have either died just a short while earlier, or else... 

Was there a chance the child may have still been alive?

It’s what I was hoping, yes. Because, after all, it had happened just the day before. [In that earlier case, Bartolo had successfully resuscitated a young woman, previously presumed dead: who is now living in Sweden]. But in any case, I did what I could, as a doctor, to determine whether there were any possible signs of life; or any chance that the child could still be resuscitated. I checked his pulse; and because he was so small, I picked him up and held his body close to my ear. Nothing.

Then I looked into his eyes - which were still open – intensely, to see if there was even the minimum trace of vitality left...  and now, I wish I never did that.  Because to this very day, I still dream of that little boy on most nights. And in those dreams, he grabs me by the hair, and reprimands me for ‘not having saved his life’...

In your book, you describe similar examples of ‘survivor guilt’: such as when your friend Domenico, a fisherman, ‘cried like a baby’, because he could ‘only save 47’ out of several hundred castaways. First of all: do you yourself feel guilty, about all the lives you didn’t manage to save?

I do, yes.

Isn’t that a bit ironic, though? After all, people like Domenico and yourself actually tried to save those lives; and just a second ago, you were arguing that the truly ‘guilty’ parties, are the ones whose ‘negligence’ and ‘superficiality’ actually caused the tragedy to happen, in the first place... 

I see what you mean; but I still feel guilty all the same, and I’ll tell you why. The fact that ‘I was there’, and ‘I saw what I saw’ – not just on October 3 2013, by the way; but from the very beginning. I have practically lived at Molo Favarolo, these past years: assisting to every single boat-arrival, day and night... even because it’s my professional responsibility; it’s part of the oath I took, as a doctor, to assist people in any way I can...

But it also brings with it a ‘responsibility’ of a different kind. It means that I KNOW what is really happening, on the ground: I’ve seen it, with my own two eyes. And people out there do NOT know what is happening.  So they do not know who is telling them the truth... and who is lying.

So I feel a great responsibility to tell my story, to whoever will listen. This is why I have written books; I’ve appeared in films.. and let’s face it: it was never on my agenda, to become an ‘author’; and even less, to ‘go to Hollywood’, and become an ‘actor’. These are things I did out of necessity. Basically, I ended up having to turn to the world of culture, to help me get the message across. Because I have suffered solitude; because I was ‘shouting out’... but no one was listening.

And this ‘message’ that I was shouting out, and that nobody was listening to, was: “It’s not true! Everything they tell you, about these tragedies; about these people; about the refugee crisis... it’s all a pack of lies.” 

At this level, your experience mirrors that of other countries (including Malta), where people who ‘shout out’ in favour of equality, or against racism – or who in any way project a ‘sympathetic’ portrait of immigrants – are often met with open hostility (sometimes, extending to death threats). How do you account for those reactions, yourself? 

It's true that some people’s reactions are hostile... but do you know why? It’s not their fault. It’s not because those people are ‘evil’. It’s because they have been lied to. They have been influenced... misled... deceived... by people who have an interest in creating this ‘culture of hatred’, for their own political reasons.

So we have been told that these people are ‘invading us’... which is not true. We were told that they are ‘carrying diseases’... which is not true. That they come here to ‘steal our jobs’... which is certainly untrue, because there is work for everybody. And all the other things we are told about these people - that they are ‘terrorists’; ‘prostitutes’; ‘criminals’, etc. – not a single word of it is true. It’s all lies. 

But on the strength of having been ‘bombarded’ by these false messages, for so long... people end up actually believing all those lies. And this is why I feel that I have a duty, to set the record straight. Because those people, who believe all those lies they’re being fed... they’re not the ‘evil’ ones.

However, there are indications that these ‘lies’ are no longer being propagated only by the Far Right. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen herself seems to gravitating towards the position of Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni; and there have been media reports that the European People’s Party is now keen on courting ‘Fratelli D’Italia’, to bolster its own political strength. Do you agree with that assessment? If so, how do you respond to it?

Yes, I certainly agree. Unfortunately, Europe is veering towards the policies of those countries which are governed by nationalistic, right-wing parties: Poland, Hungary, Austria... and now, Italy. There are many such countries, today; and between them, they are trying to turn Europe into a ‘fortress’... in order to ‘defend our borders’.

Because that’s the terminology they are using. They are talking in terms of an ‘invasion’: from which we need to be ‘defended’.  But my answer to that is: while it is obviously important to ‘secure’ our borders’... ‘defence’ is another thing entirely. You ‘defend’ your borders, only when they’re ‘under attack’. Only when your country is at war with another country, for instance. 

But... we’re not at war with anyone, right now. Least of all, with all those men, women and children, who are dying in their efforts to reach Europe. Those people are not our ‘enemies’. They are just people who, unfortunately, don’t have any alternative, but to risk their lives to escape from war, poverty, and – in many of the cases that I myself have treated – torture.

And Europe is doing everything in its power, to just ‘block them’...

But do you know what the truly strange thing is, about all this?  I myself am Italian; and I’m also the S&D’s shadow rapporteur on the RAM dossier: which is part of the ‘new asylum pact’, dealing with asylum and immigration. Now: by an interesting coincidence, all the other shadow rapporteurs representing the other European parties – including ECR and ID [which comprise ‘Fratelli D’Italia’ and ‘Lega Nord’, respectively] – are all also Italian. 

Strangely, it seems that all the major European parties are represented, on this one issue, by Italians. And Italy – along with Malta, Greece, Cyprus, Spain – is one of the countries of ‘first-entry’: at the very forefront, of the entire immigration phenomenon.

Therefore, it should really be up to us – as the people on the front line – to stand up and say: “Listen, this is a European problem. It’s not a problem just for Italy, or Malta, or Greece, or Spain. It’s a problem facing Europe, as a whole.’

Therefore, it is Europe that has to provide the answers. And the answers that Europe has to provide, must be ‘political’... but also, ‘European’.  This is why we have a unique opportunity, at the moment, to make a difference. Because, seeing as how ALL the rapporteurs working on the new asylum pact happen to be Italian – i.e., from one of the countries bearing the full brunt of this problem – it is now up to us, to insist on a fair and equitable European distribution system, among ALL European countries.

In other words: if, for argument’s sake, ‘100 people’ land on Malta... one of them would remain in Malta; Italy would take 5; France, 10; and so on – each according to its capacity, and its own exigencies. THAT is what we should be working towards. 

Above all, however, Europe has to understand, once and for all, that immigration is not a phenomenon that can be countered by ‘walls’, and ‘barbed wire’. Because that is how Europe has consistently responded to this crisis, for the past 30 years. We have erected walls, and barricades; we have deported immigrants, or thrown them in jail... we have tried to push those people away, in whatever way we could.. and what do we have to actually show for those policies, all these years later?

Not only is immigration itself still happening – and will always keep happening, no matter how many ‘barbed-wire fences’ we build - but we are still talking about ‘more tragedies’, and ‘more deaths’, to this day.

And the sea around Lampedusa, and Malta, and Greece – OUR sea; the sea that has nurtured us, and nourished us; the sea that has given us everything; that has made us what we are today – has become... a cemetery.

That, ultimately, is what I want to change. What I want is to see our once-beautiful Mediterranean Sea, return to being what it was always was for us, in the past. 

A sea of ‘life’... not ‘death’.