Europe’s stain of shame: How indifference has overtaken memories of Lampedusa tragedy

Five years ago a boat carrying over 500 migrants – almost all of them escaping from Eritrea’s totalitarian regime – caught fire 800 metres off the coast of Lampedusa. 366 men, women and children drowned in the Mediterranean. What has Europe learned from this tragedy?

A dead child collected by the AFM in the 2013 Lampedusa shipwreck rescue. Photo: Chris Mangion
A dead child collected by the AFM in the 2013 Lampedusa shipwreck rescue. Photo: Chris Mangion

Just before sunrise on 3 October 2013, Carmine Menna, a local optician, his wife Rosaria, and six friends, who were out sailing on their 15-metre yacht were the first to assist during a tragedy at sea, rescuing 47 desperate people from the water, pulling them aboard their yacht which was meant to cater for 10 persons.

But they could do nothing to save the 360 who drowned, including a mother, whose newborn baby was still attached to her by its umbilical cord when she was discovered.

Pietro Bartolo, an Italian doctor who performed autopsies on the bodies of the victims of the tragedy recalls that when performing autopsies on the children’s small bodies he was struck by how well dressed they were recalling “their little shoes and their hair in braids”.

“Their parents had dressed them with care so they could enter a new world and start a new life, a life that would finally be free of worry. They never saw that world. And it breaks my heart to think that I will never even hear their stories. That day marked my life. Often those little faces are nightmares,” Bartolo said in an article recently penned on The Guardian.

Photo by Chris Mangion
Photo by Chris Mangion


The globalisation of indifference

Three months before the tragedy Pope Francis had visited Lampedusa to denounce “the globalisation of indifference.” The scale of the disaster in terms of loss of lives stunned the Italian government and made headlines worldwide. It seemed the European Union was really interested in doing something. Politicians from all over Europe descended on Lampedusa to participate in the mass state funeral for the 366 people.

“The symbolism of travelling to the remote island of Lampedusa and the magnitude of the reaction by the media and key decision makers raised a glimmer of hope that policies would change”, recalls migration expert and senior lecturer in Malmo university, Daniela Debono.

As a result of this tragedy – as well as of a second sinking of a boat carrying 268 Syrian refugees just a week later – the Italian government launched Operation Mare Nostrum, a search and rescue operation, which saved over 160,000 lives.

George Vella who was Malta’s foreign minister at that time recalls being deeply shaken by the two tragedies. He recalls how Malta was actively involved in the rescue of Syrian and Palestinian refugees, some of whom had lost their families in the tragedy.

After the second shipwreck, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat who just a few months before had threatened a pushback to make “Europe smell the coffee”, denounced that “as things stand we are building a cemetery within our Mediterranean Sea.” From than onwards the word pushbacks disappeared from his vocabulary.

“The most heart-breaking part of this tragedy was trying to match couples only to discover that many had lost their spouses. I remember a neurosurgeon who lost his wife and children who is probably still living in Malta.”

Vella also recalls that the second tragedy involving Syrian refugees represented the beginning of the Syrian exodus to Europe which later shifted to the Balkans.

“This influx included highly-educated and skilled workers who represented an opportunity for countries facing demographic imbalances like Germany. But this same influx also contributed to the rise of xenophobia in eastern and central Europe.”

Vella recalls that the tragedies had an impact on the relationship between Malta and Italy in their handling of the migration problem, with Italy putting aside differences over the interpretation of treaties determining whether Malta or Lampedusa is the closest port of call. Successive Italian centre-left governments led by Enrico Letta, Matteo Renzi and Paolo Gentiloni assumed responsibility over migrants rescued in the central Mediterranean.

“This decision on the part of the Italians gave Malta valuable breathing space... don’t forget that till 2013 Malta was receiving thousands of arrivals on an annual basis.”

Unfortunately, as Vella notes, this approach has been discontinued by the current Italian government which includes Matteo Salvini who, according to Vella, “is going beyond what is acceptable.”

Photo by Chris Mangion
Photo by Chris Mangion


After Mare Nostrum

Mare Nostrum was successful in terms of saving lives but politically costly for the centre-left government which was practically left alone by its European partners.

The rescue mission was sadly ended a year later, in November 2014, and replaced with a significantly more limited Frontex operation called Operation Triton. The vacuum was filled by NGO-run rescue missions whose operations are currently stalled by Malta and Italy.

In the first 10 months of 2018, according to IOM statistics, 1,259 people have already lost their lives along the central Mediterranean route. 2,853 died along the same route in 2017. Yet despite the death toll European governments under pressure from a more assertive right-wing are even more reluctant to assume responsibility.

“Five years down the line, all we see is a consolidation of the very same European policies which produced the 3rd October tragedy, and many others before and after.”

These policies include the restriction of visas for legal travel, border control through military means and the criminalisation of citizen and NGO-solidarity.

Photo by Chris Mangion
Photo by Chris Mangion


Pull factor or solidarity in action?

Ironically while it was private citizens who rescued the few survivors of the Lampedusa tragedy, five years later European countries are clamping down on rescue operations by NGOs.

“Nothing will absolve any European, in particular the Maltese and the Italians who are aware of the inhumane developments, for not speaking out against the criminalisation of search and rescue NGOs”, says Debono.

In a situation where people are dying Debono is appalled by attempts to curtail the operations of those trying to save people.

“Why such heavy-handed criminalisation by states against a few NGOs, manned by volunteers? What threats do they pose, and to whom? Who stands to gain from their criminalisation? How can any government morally justify grounding a spotter plane which can save lives? What geopolitical, if not also commercial, games are being played off the shores of Libya?” asks Debono.

While denouncing the far right for seeking simple solutions to complex problems, George Vella is not keen on the role assumed by NGOs fearing that they act as a “pull factor” for smugglers even if he dismisses claims that NGOs are in cahoots with smugglers.

“In the knowledge that someone is out there to rescue the migrants just outside territorial waters, smugglers feel less responsible for the people they carry. They may even be increasing their fees because of this.”

He also expresses concern that the operations of private actors risk derailing a coordinated action between EU members. He also points out that the Libyan coast guard was trained by Italy and Malta.

“I am aware of allegations that the Libyan coast guard had shot at migrants. But can we agree with NGOs when they disobey the Libyan coast guard when we spent money on training them?” he asks.

Vella is also concerned by conditions in so-called holding camps in Libya where hundreds of migrants are kept in detention amidst reports of sexual abuse and torture.

Former Labour foreign minister George Vella
Former Labour foreign minister George Vella


Migration will not be stopped

Vella is even more concerned by the growth of the far right which fails to realise that “the migration flow will remain and will not stop at least in our lifetime.”

For although the flow has decreased thanks to border outposts in countries like Niger and most migrants actually remain in Africa, a large number of migrants remain stranded in Libya at the mercy of militias and smugglers.

While recognising that Salvini is becoming more popular by stirring anti-migration sentiments, he is sceptical of simplistic solutions proposed by right-wing leaders. Vella thinks it remains highly unlikely that any North African country will ever host “outposts” for migrants from Libya.

“Neither can one make a barbed wired fence around Libya as was once suggested to me by Sebastian Kurz when he was foreign Minister and I met him when he was visiting an EPP congress in Malta… this is the kind of language which I had to contend with…”

What many fail to recognise, according to Vella, is that “the greatest pull factor for economic migrants is the discrepancy between what they see on TV and the level of development in their country.”

Long-term solutions proposed by Vella include a marshall plan for Africa, the lifting of tariffs to encourage trade and “regulated circular migration” for young people from Africa through which these people are given opportunities to work temporarily in Europe to return with better skills and thus avoid a brain drain. Moreover, we have to realise that everyone is neighbour to someone else.

Vella, who in his first term as foreign minister between 1996 and 1998 was a pioneer of the Euro-Med dialogue, now envisions a wider process. In the absence of this, other players like China are bound to step in to capitalise on the resource rich continent.

“Nobody can say I don’t care… Northern European nations are the neighbours of Mediterranean countries which, on their part, border on African countries like Chad, Niger and Mali. The fate of Europe is tied with that of Africa.”