Echoes of the Lampedusa tragedy

Human Rights activist Neil Falzon echoes Amnesty International’s complaints about the lack of transparency surrounding the deaths of 200 migrants in October 2013

Neil Falzon
Neil Falzon

The tragedy off Lampedusa in October last year – when an estimated 200 asylum seekers died after their boat capsized in Maltese search and rescue waters – has had a profound impact on the way immigration is now discussed and tackled at international level.

Although the death rate associated with perilous Mediterranean crossings has always been high, such large-scale loss of life in a single incident was met with almost unprecedented international outrage, shock and indignation. As a result, European governments – and in particular, the European Commission – were forced to acknowledge that a good deal more needs to be done to prevent similar tragedies in future.

The EU is now in the process of resuscitating its earlier (and not terribly successful) border patrol agency, Frontex. Perhaps more effectively, Italy has since unilaterally assumed responsibility for all migrant crossings in the central Mediterranean through its own programme, ‘Mare Nostrum’. Even private life-saving operations such as MOAS, recently launched in Malta, have responded to calls for assistance by (among others) Pope Francis.

Meanwhile, echoes of this tragedy are still being felt. This week, human rights NGO Amnesty International published a report laying the blame for those 200 deaths at the doors of both Italy and Malta. “It is reasonable to question whether Italy and Malta acted promptly and with all available resources to save the refugees and migrants and whether a delay in going to their rescue contributed to the shipwreck,” the AI report noted.

Although not a member of Amnesty International (which closed its Malta office some years back), Neil Falzon of the Aditus Foundation nonetheless shares both the same concern with human rights, as well as broadly the same opinion that the systems in place to handle immigration are severely flawed.

But before turning to the AI report, I ask Falzon to comment about the current situation in the light of all the above developments. The shift in attitude at European level appears to vindicate Malta’s long-standing position on the issue. Under both Labour and Nationalist administrations, Malta has consistently complained that it is ‘too small’ and too under-resourced to cope with the influx. Now, the same arguments are repeated even by much larger Italy, and there is broad cognisance that this is a problem too large and complex for any one country to handle.

How, then, can anyone expect tiny Malta to cope with a problem that seems to be beyond the capabilities of even the entire EU?

“It’s a massively complicated scenario,” he readily admits. “From the purely political perspective, the major challenge the EU has always had – and that the new Commission will find on its plate – is how to really bring about a European vision of migration and asylum. I know it sounds very ‘pie-in-the-sky’ and cliché, but if you look at most other areas dealt with at European level – competition, agriculture, and so on – member states have agreed on a common European vision for these issues.

"They have given up, in a way, some of their own national priorities for the sake of the common interest. With asylum and migration, there was that feeling about 10, 15 years ago – in fact, it resulted in the Common European Asylum policy – but because of a number of issues and incidents that happened along the way, much of that original willingness has fizzled out.”

Falzon reasons that Italy’s Mare Nostrum programme is in part intended to ‘force’ other European member states to live up to their European commitments.

“If you look at what’s happening in Italy… Italy is rescuing everybody out at sea, yes, and I don’t doubt it is doing so out of a moral commitment. But what Italy is not doing is fingerprinting those people. So they [the rescued migrants] are quite easily moving out of Italy. They are pouring into other member states. And those member states don’t really have a way of knowing whether they came from Italy, because there is no fingerprint trail to trace.

"So in a way, Italy is challenging the whole Dublin concept by saying: look, I have shouldered the burden of rescuing everyone, as a humane responsibility. But I will refuse to accept the legal and political responsibility for every single person. I will just let them walk free, which in a way challenges the crappy Dublin system. Because the Dublin II system is, in fact, totally crappy…”

Dublin II is the primary article of European legislation governing migration and asylum procedures. Both Italy and Malta have consistently complained that it is unfair and counterproductive. On this point, Neil Falzon wholeheartedly agrees.

“Dublin II no longer makes sense in the context of how it was created. The idea was that, if you’re a refugee, wherever you enter the EU you are meant to be given the same reception conditions, the same asylum procedure, to have the same minimum standards, everywhere. But then, on the other hand, it says that if you entered the EU in Malta, you have to stay in Malta…”

Doesn’t this contradict the vision of Europe as a borderless territory rooted in the principle of freedom of movement?

“Completely. On the one hand, we are saying the EU is meant to be one big territory, all the same… on the other hand we are creating borders. Which is why one of the solutions we constantly try to raise is that the EU needs to move towards a stage when we start talking about free movement of refugees…”

For the present, however, we are stuck with the Dublin II convention, which in the past – before Mare Nostrum, at any rate – was often subject to different interpretations by different countries trying (or so it seems from the outside) to shirk their responsibilities. The previous Italian government at one point took the initiative of re-classifying Lampedusa as an ‘unsafe port of call’, specifically to circumvent the wording on international law (which provides that persons rescued at sea must be transported to the ‘nearest safe port of call’). And both Malta and Italy have argued endlessly over which country was to be responsible for rescued migrants under the present legal regime.

It was this sort of wrangling which – according to Amnesty International, at any rate – ultimately cost 200 lives in the Lampedusa tragedy. But my question for Falzon concerns the approach taken by this and other, similar NGOs. One criticism frequently levelled at such organisations is that it is very easy to sit back and point fingers at the local Armed Forces – because for instance, they didn’t act fast enough, or argued over operational procedure. But in actual fact we are dealing with a very difficult and volatile situation.

"We know, for instance, that there are human traffickers who are ready and willing to kill their passengers at the first sign of trouble. Surely, these must also take a share in the blame for the high death toll of migrants at sea. So isn’t it counterproductive to criticise the people who are actually trying to save lives – however unsuccessfully – while exculpating the people directly responsible for ferrying those migrants towards their deaths?

“A couple of points. What you are saying is perfectly true: it does create a strong emotional reaction along the lines that, ‘why are you criticising the AFM? They are doing their best in a difficult situation, let them do their job’. I can understand that reaction. But imagine a slightly different scenario, where you have a number of policemen controlling a crowd or a protest. In doing their job, one individual uses excessive force. You can claim that they were ‘doing their job’: but there are rules and standards that must be observed. Nobody is saying that all the work of the Maltese or Italian armed forces is wrong.

"What we are saying is that – I’m not speaking for AI, by the way, although we share their views – that yes, they are doing a great job, and it is definitely appreciated. However, when the government refuses to publish information which could help us understand exactly what happened, questions are inevitably going to be asked. Governments cannot react merely by criticising the criticism. That is not a justification. They need to show us that the procedures were respected. Because ultimately, that’s what counts from a legal and human rights perspective…”

Falzon argues that neither the Italian nor Maltese governments even launched an inquiry into a maritime incident that cost 200 lives. “This issue also arose in the incident of last October, another massive tragedy. A number of organisations requested the government to publish the logs, to determine exactly what happened minute by minute.

“From a human rights perspective, if you have a situation where hundreds of people die, we shouldn’t even be asking government to publish information. It should be immediate. Even if a couple of people die, the government must institute an independent inquiry. Not only to apportion blame, but also to prevent future repetitions, to see how we can improve operational procedures, to see if there are any gaps in the system, and what other assets we need to have on board to avoid similar situations.

“But if we don’t have access to that information, if there is no transparency, we are clearly going to be suspicious and ask questions. Not because I doubt in any way the professionalism or moral approach of individual soldiers; but maybe there was an issue that they spent too long to answer the phone. Maybe they did ignore a call. Maybe they did think that a boat that was moving steadily was not in an SOS situation. There are a number of issues we have brought up with the government and the AFM over the years, and this is one of them: that a boat moving on its own steam is not in need of assistance. We don’t agree with that interpretation. But that’s an ongoing discussion we have with the AFM…”

How would you define an SOS situation, then?

“For us, objectively, if you have those kind of boats – the boats migrants are coming in, with so many people on board: presuming that on board you will have men, women, children, possibly sick people… lack of food, lack of water, exposure to sun and weather conditions… for us, that is automatically a distress situation.”

But there have often been situations where boatloads of migrants have refused assistance when this was offered. I can cite one case where this resulted in a stand-off at sea, which created additional difficulties for both the migrants and the rescuers…

“Yes. That’s a very tough situation. It certainly complicates matters when people don’t want to be rescued. But not all people don’t want to be rescued. There have also been situations where persons have called for assistance, but because their engine was working the AFM said that theirs was not an SOS situation. ‘We will monitor them, we will follow them, but it’s not a boat in distress’… Again, part of the problem involves the international laws and treaties. There is no internationally accepted legal definition of an SOS. It is still left to the individual operators to decide.”

Coming back to the AI report: given the context in which all this is taking place – i.e., with the country exasperated by an increasingly hopeless migration scenario, and with a growing sense of resentment, xenophobia and hostility towards immigrants in general – how do statements like this actually help? Doesn’t this kind of attitude also exacerbate the problem by provoking a backlash against migrants, and even against the NGOs themselves?

“I don’t think Amnesty expected public sympathy for publishing that report. NGOs like us don’t do what we do to gain public sympathy. There is a responsibility to ensure that standards are met and procedures followed. If 200 people died, there should be an obligation to come clean with all the details of what happens.”

This responsibility, he adds, does not exist merely because NGOs demand the information, either.

“Speaking for myself – forget for a moment my human rights background. As a citizen, if my government were partly or wholly responsible for the deaths of 200 people, I would want to know. And if someone is to blame - whether it’s the prime minister, or that particular minister, or an individual soldier, or the commander of that day who didn’t pick up the phone… I would want to know. And the person would need to be brought to justice. That counts for all of us, and for any kind of activity.

“You can lead a perfectly law-abiding life; but if you breach a serious obligation, it needs to be highlighted... especially if it results in the death of an individual. That is how I see our job as human rights organisations. To applaud [the AFM] when they do a good job, yes… and we have always understood that theirs is an extremely tough job.

“We have always expressed our appreciation, and we have always asked the government to provide more support for the AFM, including psychological support for them to deal with the very difficult situations they face. But there are rules and standards. It is the same with the police, or with detention service officers.

"No one can deny it’s a difficult job – it’s actually a nightmare – but that doesn’t justify not doing your job properly. If anything, it requires that government provides more support so that you can do your job properly. Because otherwise, it becomes a systemic problem; not just a case of individuals. It is the system that is messed up…”

Here Neil Falzon turns to a related issue outside the immediate issue of large-scale loss of life at sea: the deaths of Mamadou Kamara, 32, in the summer of 2012 while in the custody of Detention Services and Armed Forces of Malta personnel; and the similarly mysterious death of Nigerian Ifeanye Nwokoye in April 2011.

“We still don’t know, for instance, how those two migrants died in detention. Years after their death, we still don’t know… because the inquiries instituted by the government have not been finalised, and if they have, we have not seen the results. To me, that is unacceptable. We sent a letter to the Prime Minister a few weeks ago.

"There has been no acknowledgement or reply. We asked specifically: you had to publish the results of the Valenzia inquiry two or three years ago, but still there is no sign of it. There is a clear parallelism with the Lampedusa tragedy here: people die, and we are all left none the wiser.”